I woke up early on Earth Day to the song of a white crown sparrow. It seemed fitting that to honor something as big as Earth Day, I needed to start small.
Listening to birdsong is like stepping into a land of wonder, a foreign world that I never really heard before because I never really listened. That, or the fact that the regular noise of airplanes flying overhead obscured more tender songs. (Fewer flights and less noise being one of the benefits of the pandemic.)
How generous nature is to provides such treats. Birds are almost everywhere and it takes only our attention to enjoy their trills, tweets, chirps, and chatter.
I’ve never been a birder nor could understand why anyone would wake up pre-dawn on a cold Northwest morning to stand, shiver, and watch birds. I prefer hot tea, morning meditation, and comfort. Then again, the world is changing and I am, too.
In these days of a BIG pandemic, I need the solace of the small. One bird, at one moment, became soul-food for me.
A new relationship
When I first learned history, many moons ago, I read stories of men (sic) as master-commanders, who built kingdoms and made “progress” by dominating nature.
I’m still occasionally tempted to believe that I’m the center of my own universe–or at least, with my husband, the center of our property.
This morning’s sparrow, however, didn’t get the message. He lives in his universe of song, hopping along the ground looking for seeds, insects, and spiders.
Birds are not deferent to our starring roles as masters. I doubt they spend much of their time talking about us.
That holds true for other inhabitants of our property, including the squirrels, worms, voles, chipmunks, tree frogs, and occasional raccoons, each holding private exchanges that don’t have anything to do with us humanoids.
It feels humbling and important to know how much of nature goes on without us, hurt by our actions, but never deferent.
Covid-19 is proving that.
During these stay-at-home days, I have no need to travel. I can sit and discover a world in a bird’s song. Even a little snail in a terrarium can open our hearts to nature. (Read Tova Bailey’s exquisite The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating.)
Hearing the sparrow reminds me of when, at 17, I left the United States for the first time. Spending the summer in Brussels, my lens on life shattered when I looked back at my country and saw that it was part of the world, not the center of the world.
Will Covid-19 shake us so badly that we’ll look at our relationship to the world around us in new ways? Partnerships would be a good a place to start, between countries, among peoples, and between humans and the many aspects of nature.
When we let go of master-commander or center-of-the-universe roles, we observe our interconnected places within a larger system.
“We’re in it together,” is today’s strong and uplifting mantra. That phrase really should include birds, tree frogs, viruses, government leaders, and ground beetles.
Still at the center
Eco-system thinking aside, I cling to the hope that there’s one place, with my husband, where I could be at the center of someone’s universe. When I look at our joy-boys, Winston and Royce with their ever-wagging tails, I think there’s still a chance.
But when they look at us, it’s likely, from their perspective, that THEY are at the center of the universe, and we’re just a little, you know, slow to learn.
Here’s to partnership…with a little birdsong for theme music.
While Shauna is best known as “The Gluten-Free Girl,” this book is a departure from her work as a blogger and cookbook maven. She opens up her heart and her life, as she shares what it took to survive her childhood and rebuild life as an adult. Her story of enough is uniquely her own; but the quest to find what is enough can apply to us all.
She happens to live on my island, so I was able to interview, for my podcast, a “best-selling author” who lived just a few miles down the road. Like me, she rides the bus, shops at our great local thrift store, and loves this community.
Shauna found enough not through fame as a writer, but through living her values, and staying connected to her family, her community, and herself.
One of the things I love about the book is how she takes us behind the scenes of her life as the Gluten-Free Girl. Viewed from the outside, she was the picture of social media success with thousands of followers and several highly acclaimed, prize-winning cookbooks. Behind the scenes, she was increasingly miserable with a business that neither paid the rent nor filled her soul. Courageously, she walked away and worked for a while at the local supermarket to pay the bills. We have the kind of supermarket where having a prize-winning author stocking shelves isn’t THAT unusual.
She created the space to live life according to what was most important to her.
Determining enough isn’t easy. I have lived for years with a chronic, low-grade case of not-enoughness.
Do I get enough sleep? (I can always use more.)
Do I eat enough vegetables?
Do I do enough to help the environment?
Do I give enough to causes?
Do I spend enough time with friends?
Do I spend enough time training the dogs?
Do I write enough?
Do I have enough money set aside to see me through a crazy economy and possible health challenges in the future?
The list could go on. We’re bombarded daily with ads and messages telling us we aren’t enough and haven’t done enough.
We’re told we can fill the hole in our hearts by buying more stuff.
We don’t know how to have what we have.
Years ago, in The Soul of Money, Lynn Twist wrote about how important it is to have what we have, with appreciation and gratitude. It’s not the amount of money we have, but our relationship to it that determines whether we feel abundance. While raising money for causes, Lynn discovered that some very wealthy people found little joy in their wealth or their giving. They never felt like they had enough.
A weight-y (ha) story
Years ago, while shuttling between New York City and sub-Saharan Africa for work, I lost a lot of weight. For the first time in my life, I was really thin, thus achieving the dream of many a young woman. I looked great in pants. I went down from a women’s size ten to a four. (I’m an eight now.) I wasn’t anorexic (well, maybe I was borderline), but I weighed myself obsessively every day.
I delighted in having lost weight, but was it enough? As the bones in my arms started to poke out, I heard a devilish voice saying, “What if you start to gain it back? Maybe you should lose a few more pounds to be safe.” I had achieved the prize of thinness, but it wasn’t enough. I could always be thinner.
It was not the happiest period of my life.
A few years later, after moving to Seattle, I gained weight and gave away my NYC clothes. I stopped watching the scale. (Haven’t looked at one for forty years.)
I weighed more, and I had more friends, a guy I liked, and a life I enjoyed. Like Shauna, in living a relatively simple life, I found enough.
I joked with Shauna about the tagline for her book: From a woman who has finally found it. That line made it sound like enough was an exalted state to reach, instead of something we might dip into and out of.
The publisher had chosen the tagline. (They have rights, of course.) Shauna, in turn, titled the last section of her book “Mostly enough.”
The dance between appreciating what we have and wanting more is baked into contemporary life.
Sometimes a sense of lack can lead to great achievements. But for many of us, the scales are heavily weighted away from relaxing, appreciating, and celebrating what we do have.
There may always be areas in which we wonder about enoughness or feel that there’s more that we want. We reach retirement, did we achieve enough? We start painting, are we good enough? We have friends, but do we have enough?
The question, ultimately, is whether we believe we ARE enough.
Some days we may be sure that we are; some days, we may forget.
To everything (turn, turn, turn) There is a season (turn, turn, turn) And a time to every purpose, under heaven
Pete Seeger (and Ecclesiastes)
When I first arrived at our island home almost fourteen years ago, I started to garden like a madwoman. This was particularly significant because I had never gardened before. For a few years, the garden was the focal point of my life.
Then, after a momentous year of preparing for an island Garden Tour, I more or less stopped. Moved on to other things (writing). Did a little work in the garden, while dreading the onslaught of weeds. Felt the obligation. Lost the love.
Then this year – almost nine years later, I found myself in love with the garden again. I’m not gardening as before, but am looking forward to time outside without feeling enslaved.
Another possibility of a hidden cycle is my dogs. I lost my beloved Springer Spaniel eighteen years ago. Two cycles of nine later–last year–we began fostering Springers. And if you read last week’s blog, you’ll know that we just adopted our two young bro-boys last week.
Is a new cycle of my life about to start?
Cycles of life
The idea of a cycle is natural. Our lives follow the rhythms of the seasons, day and night, life into death. Watching the brilliant leaves of fall begin to fall (our maples are glorious), I am comforted to know new growth will start again after the winter.
Yet, part of me clings to the idea of free will.
Why should my life and projects be dictated by a cyclic rhythm? What about the great American idea that we make our destiny, build whenever we want, and continually live on the edge of creating some great thing?
It’s humbling to accept that life is not totally dependent on my initiatives. Following the natural rhythm of a time to plant and a time to sow suggests that there may be an organic time to start a project and a time to cease.
This week, I decided not to attend a workshop I might have loved at another point in my life. But not this year. I’m coming to the end of a period in which I have preferred to be more inward and reflective. Go slower. Take more care and do a little less.
Although numerological cycles are intriguing, I don’t believe in following a strict formula, because there are almost always exceptions to any rule. But I do appreciate learning to listen to the cycles within.
Knowing that every cycle has a beginning, middle, and end, keeps me from pushing too hard to start a project (a favorite sport!) when the timing isn’t quite right.
Moving out in the world. Choosing a dream or project and beginning to develop it.
Creating. Beginning the work.
Continuing to build.
Allowing change. Learning from experience.
Nurturing and harvesting.
Reevaluating and continuing to harvest.
Beginning to draw in; becoming more reflective.
Allowing the cycle to complete. Spending time nurturing one’s self in the cocoon before re-emerging. Going fallow.
You don’t have to buy into the cycle of nine to feel how cycles might be operating in your life.
When a project feels sticky getting off the ground, or a move or relationship doesn’t seem to be following your preferred timing, you can ask, “Where am I in the cycle, and what might be being asked of me now?”
To help, here are some sample questions to see where you might be in a cycle:
Do I feel the energy, green and fresh, of new beginnings, dreams, and yet unformed projects?
Is it time to get going and build something (a project, a business, a relationship)?
Is it time to hang in there with what I’m building, and persevere despite challenges I may be facing?
Do I need to learn from experience and adapt my plans?
It is time to celebrate the harvest and gather the fruits of what I’ve created?
Is it time to begin to give away and share lessons with others?
Am I hearing the rumbles that change is coming?
Am I sensing that it’s time to complete and let go? Do I feel like pulling in a little?
Is it time to go fallow, and reflect before life pulls me out again?
If I had my preference, I’d usually opt for the beginning of a cycle. Vision, dreams, possibilities are my native turf.
In the last few years, however, I’ve been living through the end years of a nine-year cycle. I’ve learned about the deepening that comes from spending time in a fertile, fallow period.
I’ve been writing, yes, but not engaging as much outside of my habitat. Doing the inner-tending felt right, knowing that this stage wouldn’t continue forever.
Now, as I move back into the garden, I wonder if things are about to change…
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.
We all have rhythm. It’s built into us through our heartbeats and the circadian (24 hour) rhythms that influence when we feel hungry, energetic, or sleepy.
As our biology influences our rhythms, so, too, does the way we work.
Our distant ancestors followed rhythms that were tied to light. Our parents may have worked “on the clock,” subjected to a rhythm established in industrial times.
We no longer follow the sun or work 9–5. With our increasingly flexible workdays, we have the option of working 24-7.
Such flexibility might seem like a good thing. If you’re a night owl, you might be more than happy to forego commuting before dawn for another dread breakfast meeting.
I can assure you that I wasn’t happy when a former client announced that he was scheduling my workshop for 7 am. (I like to write in the morning – but strictly in my pajamas.)
Lack of schedule: liberating or not?
Freedom from an imposed or arbitrary schedule can feel liberating, which is why vacation, retirement, or working for one’s self can feel great, at least for a while.
But, devoid of rhythms imposed by other-directed schedules, our days can lose their spines, and we’re left feeling like we’re spinning around.
At a minimum, those external demands, deadlines, and meetings keep us pulsing through our days.
Without them, where’s the incentive to get out of bed on a bad hair day?
Job or no job, many of us have gone a-rhythmic with our days.
I was initially delighted when the Internet offered me the freedom and flexibility to work when I wanted. Ride my horse at ten am? Yay! Work at 9 pm? No problem!
Until one day, I woke up and realized that I couldn’t tell, from my schedule, when I was “off work,” and when I was “on.”
My schedule had lost its boundaries. It was as if I was composing music by stuffing in more and more notes while forgetting to add rests. (Usually called cacophony.)
What I lost
As I survey our new world, I notice how many the rhythms that used to be part of life are endangered:
Eating regular family meals together. (Stats vary, but a 2003 study suggested that US families eat dinner together only three or fewer times a week, with 10 percent never eating dinner together at all.)
Going to bed and rising on a regular schedule. (Sleep doctors keep trying to convince their patients on this one.)
Observing a sabbath, rest day, or even intentional time off, consistently every week. (Read Marilyn Paul’s book with her convincing rationale for rest days. You could try a rest break if you’re not yet up to taking a full day.)
Taking vacations at all. (In one 2017 study, 52 percent of Americans didn’t use all of their paid vacation days.)
Stopping work at a given time, or establishing work-free zones. (Guilty as charged!)
Rhythm is about more than schedules
Our loss of rhythm isn’t just about our crazy schedules. It’s about listening to our bodies in a world that’s gone head-centric and body-negligent.
In some African cultures today, the beat of work lives like a pulse entering the body and then manifesting through music, song, and dance. It’s as if the rhythm lives in their bones–and in their souls. You can see it in this video.
Listening to the rhythms of life
Can we recapture that sense of everyday rhythms by listening more to life?
Watch how people walk and see if you can feel their beat. Listen to how a rooster crows on fixed intervals. Explore if that amorphous rush of traffic might contain hidden rhythms that give its noise a shape.
Maybe some of your everyday work, whether chopping onions, sweeping a broom, or pumping iron, might be more fun when you can feel its beat.
Unfortunately, I don’t think the erratic tap tap of my fingers on a keyboard gives me the rhythmic boost that I need.
Become your own composer
Once you start to listen, then you can compose. Has your life become bland as you march to a steady, but monotonous, four-four beat? Could you add more rhythmic variety?
If you’re always working at a high rhythmic intensity, could you deliberately insert some downtempo activities?
Have you structured the rhythm of your days to be so complicated that even a professional dancer might stumble? How about notching back, and introducing some time in an easy to follow two-two beat?
If no one but you is driving your schedule, why not introduce a few regular beats into your life to set a rhythm for your week?
Create routines, for your early morning, evening or mealtimes, that punctuate your day.
Set regular weekly meetings with friends and colleagues, or join a class.
Plan together-times with your family or partner you can count on.
Create deadlines that fit the rhythm you want to establish for yourself.
Publish a blog every Thursday–my secret formula!
Finding more flow
Rhythm comes from the Greek word that means “to flow.”
Let’s give it more attention, so we can become master composers of our days.
My husband is not guilty of crimes against the state. The state may be guilty of crimes against him.
The news about what is happening or not happening in Washington, D.C. is robbing him of his optimism and faith in the future.
I watch him going down as he reads about venality, greed, the partisanship that forgets the common good, and failure to act upon the pressing issues of the day. Top that off with doses of real tragedy and unconscionable actions or neglect–no wonder he looks droopy.
By nine am each morning, after spending a piece of his prime time reading national newspapers, he emerges with a hang-dog I-can’t-believe-what-they’re-doing or did-you-hear-what-just-happened look. So much for the rest of the day.
OK, many of us are suffering, but after seeing what the news is doing to him, I decided to take drastic action.
For the record, I believe in the importance of educated citizenship. But what good results from keeping up with the news if it leaves one feeling hopeless, like there’s nothing that can be done? Broken spirits will not save the country.
That’s why he’s under house arrest. Unlike the fictional, aristocratic hero of my favorite vacation read, A Gentleman in Moscow, who lived under house arrest for twenty-six years, my husband can still go out.
News of the world will reach him through NPR as he travels to his morning coffee conversations with his guy friends. And I can’t prevent them from talking politics.
At home, though, strict limits are called for.
Here’s what must be banned:
Washington Post headlines as well as articles.
New York Times headlines and articles.
Teasers on Facebook or social media (he’s not too susceptible).
Spending too much time thinking about the Supreme Court.
I haven’t decided whether he can read the Guardian. Consumer Reports is OK.
What he can do:
Give money to causes he already knows are important.
Vote intelligently and give money selectively to campaigns (and no, he can’t support all the worthy candidates.)
Give time to LOCAL causes. He is not likely to fix the national health care crisis, but he has a good crack at contributing to preserving the future of health care on our island.
Take naps and read novels.
I am NOT denying him his deep compassion for the unfairly treated of the world.
I do want him to try laughing again.
I don’t suggest that we should all tune out, just that we need to pay attention to how the news flattens us.
Perhaps my husband is a special case because of his age and heart condition. But I doubt a regular diet of heartbreak is good for any of us.
I can’t place YOU under house arrest, but my cautions still apply. Stop absorbing news when you feel it weakening your spirits, your resolve, your compassion or your heart.