How to find Magic in the Ordinary

Last weekend, our furnace quit.

That meant no heat and no hot water. We warmed the house by turning on our stove’s gas burners. My husband chivalrously carted buckets of hot water from the kitchen to the bathroom so that I could take a bath (sacred evening ritual) pioneer style.

After the furnace was repaired, I had several moments of reverence for the miracle of hot running water.

Last winter, we lost power during a winter storm (not unusual on our island). After a couple of days, the delight in dinner by candlelight and experiencing a computer-free existence faded, and I was tired of looking for clothes in a dark closet.

When the power came back on, I flipped on the closet light with amazement.

Years ago (many), while a college student, I traveled to Turkey on the cheap and encountered overflowing stand-up toilets in a hostel in Istanbul.

When I returned to the States, I had epiphanies of appreciation feeling the soft toilet paper in a clean bathroom.

Each of these times I felt, for a moment, the magic of the ordinary.

Sadly, in all cases, my reverence faded away with time, and I returned to taking much of life for granted.

How can we wake to the magic of ordinary life without enduring blackouts or filthy toilets?

The magic in ordinary life

I’ve read that what people miss most when they are forced to leave their homes or know they are dying is not the lost opportunity to visit Timbuktu or climb Kilimanjaro, but the simple stuff: Adam’s peanut butter on whole-wheat toast, the smell of fresh ground coffee every morning, the purple and yellow blooms on a winter pansy.

My friend Merna teaches immigrant and refugee teenagers to write poetry; the results are heart-rending. The kids describe what they miss from their homelands: onions cooking on the stove, tortillas on the grill, honking bicycles and jitneys, the morning smell of jasmine, a grandmother’s touch. Daily life. Ordinary stuff.

These days what I would sorely miss are my husband’s hugs, horse’s kisses, and movie night with the dogs, when we all crawl onto the bed to watch “The Queen” on Netflix. (The dogs are crazy for the Queen’s corgis.)

How can we wrest ourselves from the unconscious sense of entitlement that lets us take so much for granted?

If we could see how much is there for us on an ordinary day, we’d soak in abundance and delight in wonder.

Welcoming more enchantment

Enchantment invites the imagination to be a part of our everyday, grounded, worldly life. No need to leave science and common sense behind when we allow curiosity and surprise to accompany us through our days. (How many great scientists were enchanted by their fields and used imagination to interpret their data?)

Here are some ways to try:

Do without something for a while. You may be able to interrupt the trance of taking things for granted.

Stop and observe. Notice the world before you. If you were painting, what would you see? If you were conducting, what would you hear? If you had to leave, what would you miss?

Imagine that stones carry stories and trees, history. What might they tell you if you were willing to listen with curious ears?

Wander differently. You don’t need to visit another country. Take a spin around your backyard, neighborhood, or city, and deviate from your usual path. Walk backward for a bit. Close your eyes, and listen to sounds. Try navigating without sight. Vary your routine and see what you discover.

Indulge your senses. Eat your food super-sloowly and track the sensations that come with eating an everyday fruit, like an orange. Imagine what it was like for the first Northern European to take a bite. Using your imagination and all your senses, you may taste the hot sun and dusty paths where that orange was born.

Talk to the things that surround you. Not everyone wants to be Dr. Doolittle, but I regularly converse with my horses and say hello to my trees (especially Harriet, my copper beech). Do they understand? Don’t know–but it puts ME into more relationship with them.

Be grateful for the small stuff and the people around you. In amplifying my appreciation, I feel more connected to the world, and crack the door open for new enchantment to enter.

While we may think “enchantment” means spells, the real spell we’re under (or I am) is sleepwalking through life, taking the ordinary for granted, ignoring the opportunities for wonder that are right in front of us.

Brewing a batch of enchantment requires doses of gratitude, sensory awareness, being very present, wonder, and imagination.

With a bit of luck, you might encounter magic.

When life goes to the dogs

 

This week I interrupt my usual desire to bring you important, reflective, timely, or occasionally useful information, to bring you this fast-barking news:

We just adopted our joy-boys, brothers Winston and Royce, after several months of fostering these young, high-energy English Springer Spaniels.

Color us nuts. It makes NO SENSE to do something that adds complication, let alone expense, to our lives.

But what seems to make no sense may actually make the most, especially when it comes to infusing affection and joy into our lives.

These guys never care that the news about the White House, California fires, or climate change is dire. EVERYTHING can be cured with enough kisses and hugs.

I’m a total lush for doggy hugs. (Even if it makes writing in my chair a little more difficult.)

Dogs in chair

Clearly, they are changing our lives.

Mr. Royce considers flies to be his personal home entertainment system. Fortunately, this fall we have a bumper crop flying around the kitchen, keeping him very busy.

This week, he created a new slogan: “I’ve never met a fence I didn’t like (to get out of).” A half a mile of fencing around the property was enough to keep deer out, but not Royce in. Being the true explorer he is, he lives for making (or digging) discoveries, like this secret tunnel into the horse paddock:

Winston delights in watching old Downton Abby episodes with us, waiting for the moments when he can run with the hounds. They bark on screen and off he goes. He appears to have been born without any gearing between sleep and high-speed, turbo-charged racing around the property. If only I could burn calories watching him run…

In a different vein, I have been using my non-existent free time to research robotic vacuum cleaners and cordless-stick vacuums, and the possibility of hiring a house staff like at Downton to remedy the daily dirt disaster on our floors. I never thought I’d be working for the dogs. (Cleaning tips gratefully accepted!)

My husband? He’s onto the fences. I suppose great adventures always come with challenges.

All I can say is that at those times when the four of us huddle together on the bed, reading, watching movies, or staring at flies, life is good.

Very good.

Our thanks to our friends at English Springer Rescue America (ESRA) and to our beloved senior Spaniels Riley and Jackson who broke our hearts while they broke us in.

Put the hallow back in Halloween (plus five freaky facts)

Halloween is coming, that once a year fest of spooks, villains, princesses, and pumpkins–a merchandiser’s dream. If we could ignore the overdose of commercialism, though, we might find, within the history of its Celtic predecessor, rituals that would help us move gracefully into the season of darkness, remember the presence of those we have loved, and feel the thin veil that separates us from the world of the dead.

The Celtic festival of Samhain, (pronounced Saa-wn) at the end of the harvest, offered a way to acknowledge the liminal (transitional) space between a time of light and dark. The Celtic new year began at Samhain, honoring the idea that death and darkness are the fertile ground from which new light and life will come.

Not surprisingly, it is a time of mystery, as liminal moments, suspended between times, often are.

It seems as though we’re in a liminal time today, as we don’t know where we’re going and have forgotten where we’ve been. A little bit of guidance from the ancestors on how to navigate our uncertainties might be useful! (Just lighting a candle and reflecting on those no longer with us could augur in wisdom–worth trying anyway.).

The Celts observed Samhain 2000 years ago. They believed that on the last night of October the veil between life and death was at its thinnest, enabling them to connect with ancestors and honor the dead. It was a risky time, for nastier spirits could also penetrate the veil, hence the practice of providing treats in order to avoid their tricks.

Today, we wear masks and offer treats without remembering why.

Knowledge of the spirit and nature worlds felt by the Celts has been all but forgotten

The Catholics come to town

The Catholic Church has a long history of bending pagan festivals to suit its purposes. In the 9th century, the Church layered its celebration of dead saints and martyrs, All Saints Day, over Samhain. The night before the holiday became All Hallow’s Eve.

In Mexico, an Aztec honoring of the dead was Catholicized into Dia de los Muertos. Like the Celts, the ancient Mexicans believed that the spirit world came close to the earth for one evening during which deceased loved ones could return and visit. Families built altars of remembrance for their ancestors and left food out for them.

Thus ancient native and pagan traditions, with an overlay of Catholicism, became the jackpot for commercialism known as Halloween.

If you like, get out those costumes and masks. But be prepared that the predicted costume of the year will be the terrifying, shape-shifting clown from the recent horror hit Pennywise.

If you’d like a different way to celebrate, read on. 

But first, five freaky factoids:

Freaky fact 1: Consumers in the U.S. are expected to spend about $9 billion this year on Halloween. (More than the GDP of Somalia.)

Freaky fact 2: Of the above, about $490 million will be spent on costumes for pets. (Source: National Retail Federation). (Note to my furry boys: not on my watch!)

Freaky fact 3: The Halloween movie series is the highest-grossing horror franchise in the United States logging in at approximately $761.3 million. Too bad they creepified the word “Samhain” by leaving it smeared in blood on a chalkboard, after a murder.

Samhain was about harvest, not horror.

Freaky fact 4: A pastor who claimed Halloween was satanic: Pat Robertson.

Freaky fact 5: Disney tried to trademark the name “Dia de Los Muertos” for the animated film that eventually became Coco.

This attempt was dumber than dumb on Disney’s part, but the company made up to the Latino community by choosing an all Latin cast, using Mexican-American cultural advisors, and showing great respect for the Mexican Day of the Dead. (Loved the movie!)

For a more reflective way to honor the presence of death in life, try these rituals from Samhain:

Take a nature walk. As falling leaves announce the presence of death, nature’s afterglow explodes in oranges and reds. Let your senses enjoy the rich smell of loam and decay while watching spiders weave artistic magic. Nature is our best teacher about the cycles of life: death and birth; decay and growth; times of dark and light.

Celebrate the season. We decorate to remind ourselves about the turns in the year.

We place pumpkins and gourds on the table and decorate with the yellows, burnt oranges, russets and browns of fall to remind us to be grateful for the harvest.

Prepare an altar for your ancestors. As we enter the dark time of year, I miss my parents and feel the absence of friends who have passed. We can shape little altars on a dresser or table, with favorite photos and mementos, letting candles reinforce our reverence. It’s a lovely time to meditate or journal about those we have lost.

Tell the stories of your ancestors. What stories live in your family about those who are gone? This could be a time to go looking into the past and collecting stories from those who can recall the family history.

Reflect. For the Celts, the new year begins in November–a perfect time to reflect on what you’ve learned and how you’ve grown, free from the expectations and hoopla of New Year’s celebrations.

Light a bonfire or lots of candles. Fire played a prominent role in the rituals of Samhain. During the ancient ceremonies, fires would be extinguished for a moment, and then rekindled. That one moment was an opportunity to feel the darkness and appreciate the spark from which new fires would come.

For more about these and other ideas drawn from the tradition of Samhain check out this source.

 

 

 

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If fear knocks: 8 ways to survive an anxious day

Today I’m waiting for the outcome of a friend’s surgery, and whether that’s fear or anxiety, it’s pretty hard to take because there’s nothing I can do to influence the situation.

Fear and anxiety have set in. Technically, they are different although I consider them blended cousins. According to the psychologists who wrote the DSM, the diagnostic manual of mental disorders, fear is “the emotional response to real or perceived imminent threat,” whereas anxiety is the “anticipation of future threat.” Whatever. They’ve both got me today.

I know that fear has its place. When it’s collaborative, fear gives me warnings I need to stay safe. But today, it’s overstepped its bounds.

What to do when fear charges at us like a grizzly, leaving us caught on the trail, frozen like a deer, fearing those huge claws, yet unable to run?

Today, that’s what waiting feels like.

As I write these words, I’m watching the clock thinking about my friend.

With each hour that passes, my anxiety starts feeling emboldened.

I remembered when my husband had his heart procedures. I could bear the tension of waiting for a few hours while I distracted myself, but when the surgery went beyond its expected duration, a five-star alarm started ringing in my brain.

Today, I want to do it differently. I want to keep my sanity while waiting for news.

As part of my make-it-through-the-day strategy, here’s what I came up with:

1) Do nothing.

Knowing that this, too, will pass, I can give myself permission to dog-paddle around feeling completely dysfunctional, unable to place bank statements in the proper “Bank” folder or even call a friend. At some point, the tension will release, and I’ll move on. In the meantime, I’ll try to be compassionate. Lots of emotions are running, and I must remember not to get mad at the unhelpful service representative or scream at the dogs for once again tracking mud all over the floors I just cleaned.

2) Get busy.

If I can manage to do that filing, make those over-due phone calls, or even write that report, I may be able to do an end-run around the fear by staying busy, at least for a while. I cleaned up the muddy floors.

3) Eat dark chocolate.

According to the research, dark chocolate may improve blood flow and lower blood pressure–as if I needed a justification. Perhaps 7 am is a little early in the day to start nibbling, but today was an exception.

4) Breathe.

This could be tip number one, but it requires some intention. I try to take some deep breaths with longer exhales. I offer myself as many time-out-to-breathe moments as I need.

5) Put it into perspective/meditate.

This suggestion requires more focus because it involves using my mind. If I’m lucky, I’ll reframe the situation to align it with reality and bypass some fear. The surgeons were positive. That’s good. When lives aren’t at stake, I can try to put my worries into the “greater scheme of things.”

But reframing assumes that I have control of my mind. Today it’s behaving like a couple of crazed horses who’ve cut loose and left the barn. Meditation may help, but it’s hard to sit still when I hear the runaways galloping and shrieking. I may need to calm my body before I can meditate.

6) Shake.

This one might sound weird, but I tell you, it works.  Today, I put on some music and shook for ten minutes. I can’t believe how much it helped.

Generally, when we’re waiting for someone to come out of surgery at the hospital, we’re not encouraged to shake. Too bad. Movement, and specifically shaking, is one of our bodies’ natural defenses against fear. When shaking might seem out of place (really, who cares?), we can try running, dancing, digging or even discretely tapping our toes under a table.

One problem with fear is that it can immobilize us.

That brilliant maestro of somatic learning, Peter Levine, who spent decades studying how we recover from trauma, noticed that animals, in the wild, shake after they’ve gone through a terrifying experience. After the lion leaves, the impala shakes her way back to normalcy. Humans, however, are rarely encouraged to use the body’s natural responses to fear: shaking, trembling, crying, or even screaming. Instead, we learn to keep fear locked under wraps within our bodies, often for years.

Trauma experts suggest that by shaking and moving, we can release some of our held-in fear, whether it comes to us from past or present concerns.

Shaking or moving breaks the trance of immobility, and allows the amygdala an outlet for its fearful energies.

7) Pray.

I’ve been praying a lot. Whether you believe in God or not, prayer is one of those actions you can take because “it can’t hurt, and it just might help.” I pray for my friend. I pray for the family. I pray to make it through the next half hour.

Prayer helps me break through the illusion that I’m in my distress alone, which is almost never true.

8) Take a small step.

I’ve decided to treat my small steps today like gifts. I’m going to give myself the gift of 15 minutes of filing, the gift of breakfast, the gift of paying a bill. Hokey, perhaps, but one thing people who have stood at the edge of death often say, is that it’s the small, routine, sometimes overlooked parts of life, for which they are acutely grateful.

Because they understand the gift that each small, routine, step represents.

Finally, one last, optional, step:

Get licks. 

Ok. This tip is not for everyone, but it works for me. If you love dog kisses, you’ll know exactly what I mean.

Mostly, I’ve been trying not to get frozen by fear. It brings some gifts: heightening my senses and helping me to realize what’s most important.

Not so bad, really, not so bad.

 

Finding your true “yes” and your true “no”

One thing I have noticed in recent years is that my “no’s” and my “yes’s” have gotten stronger and clearer. Being able to listen to one’s self and sense (and offer) a true “yes” and a true “no” may be one of the superpowers we can claim with age, even if gracefully conveying an honest “no” takes a lot of tact.

Clear yes/Clear no

A few years ago, as I was traveling the on-ramp to 60, a very generous friend of mine offered me his ticket to a national conference that was taking place in Seattle. Tickets were pricey, and his was a very kind offer. It made good sense for me to attend since the conference was related to my field. But when I considered going, I heard a voice inside of me saying, “No.”

Sense or no sense, I didn’t go.

Instead, I stayed home to work in my garden. My garden had become my teacher and my creative calling; I needed those days to dig.

Later that year, a friend suggested that I take a clowning class. Even though I had never clowned (and it turned out to be bloody hard), I heard, “Yes.”

That decision also didn’t make sense.

With hindsight, both my “No” and my “Yes”  did make sense. A new impulse was calling me forward. My love of gardening would lead me to start writing; my forays into clowning and improv would open up a deeper understanding of storytelling.

Alas, not all of my “yes’s” and “no’s” are that clear. Some decisions still take years for me to muddle through. Other times I delay saying, “No,” for fear of hurting someone’s feelings–not the best excuse.

The art of an honest “No”

There’s nothing easy about saying “No,” especially to a friend. Ironically, though, “no’s” are often key to real friendship.

A friend hit it on the head when she said, “I want my friends to be able to say “No” to me, so I can believe them when they say, “Yes.”

We can tell when someone is saying “yes” out of obligation or not wanting to offend. A “yes” with a ‘no” disguised within it has a yucky feeling, a half-heartedness. On some level, we know what we are hearing doesn’t jibe with what we are sensing. It’s disturbing.

We need to be able to say “No,” blessing the friendship while declining an opportunity.

Saying “No” to support your creative time

In general, I prefer to be around people who live life with a spirit of “YES!” instead of a stream of “no’s.”

That said, many writers and creatives describe how important it is to prioritize their creative work, and to say “No” to invitations that might pull them away from it. I would love to have more coffees with friends, go on outings, or host a dinner party reciprocating some of the hospitality my husband and I have received.

But I can’t. Not just now. My work is tender, and I have to stay focused.

But how to be honest?

If I were to be totally honest (not there yet), what I might say to a friend who hosted us for dinner is, “Thank you so much for dinner–I really enjoy being with you and appreciated your lovely meal. I want to reciprocate but here’s the truth: cooking is not where I want to spend my time right now, and writing is. If I don’t keep going, my progress will dissipate. In another world, perhaps that of The Crown, the Netflix series I am binge-watching in my downtime, I’d have my housekeeper prepare the house, my royal staff would cater dinner, and my personal assistant would handle all the accompanying details. (I’m anticipating this after I’m anointed!) But even though I’m not entertaining these days, I care about you and enjoy being together.”

I’m afraid that’s too many words. I’ll probably just stick with the first sentence.

Open space in a calendar is not blank space

Growing up, I lived for weekends and wanted entertainment. Now, when I reach the weekend, I’m happy if there’s nothing on my calendar. These days, life comes in front and center pretty hard, and I need more and more recovery time. Even though open spaces in my schedule mean I could do something, I know in my heart that I need that time to do–nothing.

When you’re on a creative roll, allowing open space in a calendar is often more potent than filling all of your time slots in.

The nuanced “No”

Repeatedly saying, “No” to pursue your creative work can seem selfish. You can mitigate that risk by asking, “What am I being called to do now?”

You may have to bend your schedule and change your plans. A friend receives a call that her ninety-year-old mother has fallen; my friend’s painting project is put on hold. When my mother was in her last years, I flexed my schedule to say, “Yes,” whenever I could. Some sacrifices are worth making, not out of obligation but out of an inner knowing.

I worry that putting a shield around my schedule may discourage friends from remembering that I’ll be there for them if they need to go to the hospital, work through an urgent problem, or have a heart-to-heart conversation.

If you’re reading this, remember this offer to you!

Where it all starts

Etiquette aside, hearing (and speaking) a true “yes” and true “no” begins with listening to your heart. In today’s chatter of overfilled schedules and continual opportunities to do more than any mortal possibly could, hearing the subtle soundings of the soul takes particular attention.

A true “yes” and a true “no” have a ring. When a friend who has thoughtfully considered what she’s being called to do declines my invitation, I might be disappointed. I can also be inspired.

By listening with the heart and speaking from her inner knowing, my friend offers me permission to listen more deeply to what is calling me.

And I say “Yes” to that.

 

Heal the burn

It’s so difficult to watch the pictures of the Amazon burning, knowing that there’s so little that can be done, at least in the short run, even as some countries offer millions in aid. One way I stay sane is by sending healing thoughts to nature, just as, on so many days, nature heals me. Rather than write more here, I found a few quotes by poets I admire, as well as the above quote by the late Nobel Laureate and environmentalist Wangari Maathai. They remind me to pause, bless our summer raspberries, and send healing thoughts to the Amazon.  (I figure it never hurts).

“Said the river: imagine everything you can imagine, then keep on going.”  Mary Oliver

“Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake.”  Wallace Stevens

“Better than any argument is to rise at dawn and pick dew-wet red berries in a cup.”  Wendell Berry.

A Navajo Chant:

The Mountains, I become part of it.
The herbs, the fir tree, I become part of it.
The morning mists, the clouds, the gathering waters,
I become part of it.
The wilderness, the dew drops, the pollen…
I become part of it.

From the book Earth Prayers.

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