Presence

I’m currently seated alone on a bench in the middle of the Central Garden at the Getty Center–a bit of calm in the midst of the whirlwind that is chaperoning a class trip to Los Angeles. It’s a pretty slow afternoon here so rather than being surrounded by troops of school children and scads of tourists, I’m instead engulfed by tender tweeting of the birds, water dancing lightly over boulders and idle chatter of intermittent museum guests walking the path beside me. The sun is beaming down from a cloudless sky accompanied by a light breeze tempering the heat…a perfect afternoon.

And for the first time in months, I am truly still…momentarily at peace…existing simply in awestruck wonder of the beauty that surrounds me. Beauty, when we stop to examine it and appreciate it, had this effect…drawing us in, holding us nearer to its perfection and then sending us away again changes. Here, in this moment, I am not needed or in need. There is nothing else I should be doing or would rather be doing. The magic of this garden and its serenity has dissolved the rest of the happenings of this day and I exist solely in this place, in this moment. My heart rate has slowed and my eyes feel opened to a world beyond the immediate moment.

The immediate moment, replete with daily stressors of work and home and kids and bills and health and airplanes I’m not so excited about boarding in the current situation, began to dissolve the moment I sat down and inhaled for the exhalation that followed let it all go—blown towards the mountains in the distance already encased in fog (seems like they could handle a little more).

This larger moment contains being amid the gift of creation that surrounds us and truly seeing it, hearing it, and then pausing to really be here and not everywhere else.

Presence. How often are we this present in our lives? How often do we dismiss preoccupation to live into the moments we are blessed with? I know my struggles with this reflect a life that is too busy, a mind too cluttered. But I also can’t always see my way through the fog of it all of the time. And let’s face it, I’m not in the Central Garden of the Getty everyday…

And so, presence becomes a Lenten promise of sorts. A renewed dedication to being present for my kids, for my husband, for myself, for my life. There is no expedient means of repair for the till modern life has taken on my ability to live free from the weight of the rest. Restoration will require mindfulness and effort–as all important endeavors do–but the quality of life that will resound as a result…transformative.

“I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud” by William Wordsworth never felt more appropriate:)

pointless

Somewhere around age 8 or 9, I developed a pretty intense phobia. This fear defied conventionality (or at least it felt that way). It was no fear of heights or dogs that others could relate to (though, let’s be real here, I was afraid of those things too). No, this was something that no one else seemed to get–including myself. My fear rooted itself in an aversion to any kind of stomach illness. Sure, lots of people (almost proudly) proclaim “germophobia” but this was more specific and for some reason that baffled others. Or maybe it wasn’t so much the fear that was the issue as much as the way it revealed itself (in panic attacks at absurd moments, in selectively eating only food that felt safe, in doing any number of evidently ridiculous things that felt entirely necessary).

The great humor of my life…and I do believe God sees the irony in this situation as much as I do…is that I spent decades (literal decades) actively working to never feel nauseous…actively worried on the daily that I might be sick or that I might have been exposed to illness…actively avoiding events, people, places where sickness might be present (and I don’t just mean the obvious places…my fear of flying had less to do with the act of flying in a plane and everything to do with the possibility of people getting airsick…) only to find myself at age 36 coping with an invisible illness that brought with it episodic bouts with severe vertigo and regular imbalance and with that came nausea beyond my control (important to note here that even on the days when I wasn’t struggling with violent spinning, I sort of always felt like I was rocking on a boat…sort of like those movies with a shaky camera that make you feel a little seasick by the end…that sensation represented a good day for far too many years). There is no medicine, by the way, that will make vertigo stop…only medicine to abate the side effects of it (and then, only if you are lucky). You are at the complete mercy of your body. You just have to wait it out.

Situations like this provide clarity if nothing else, really. What I came to realize through this joke my body has played on me was that all those days and weeks and months and years of worrying, all that wasted effort, in the end, turned out to be really quite pointless. It didn’t matter how much I worried or how much care I took to avoid, this was always going to happen…and germs really have nothing to do with it (in all seriousness, you have to know, the comedy of this hasn’t escaped me).

This is sort of how life is though, right? People told me for years that I was squandering perfectly healthy moments with worry, but I couldn’t feel the truth of that in any real way until my life handed me a series of whirling moments that brought with them new understanding…like the scales falling away from my eyes. We are experiential beings and sometimes we have to live through the difficult moments to learn the lessons we would have been better off learning far sooner. But the important part is that we are ready to accept the understanding and move forward from there. I suppose that is growing up? And I suppose that process of forming and re-forming the people we have the potential to become is a life long one. And I kind of love that gift…of lessons learned no matter our age…because no matter how unpleasant the wrapping may seem, what is inside delivers insight that makes each day a better one than the one before.

(Day 43…this one feels maybe a little too revelatory…but here it is…is it king cake time yet??)

empowerment

Words, language, have become a means of survival.

Air, water, food, shelter, words. Sincerely, their necessity has reached this level.

The easy answer here in uncovering the meaning behind this dramatic assertion is that books have saved me…allowed me an escape…or that writing has…but it isn’t that simple or that obvious, because for a long time, when I was sick and dizzy, reading and writing were not the friendliest options. However, there are realizations in life that shine a light to burn off the fog that has settled in around you…the fog that hinders your vision…not allowing you to see anything else until you recognize first the truth of what has blinded you. Sometimes you get lost and can’t see up from down or details of the world around you.  Then the moment arrives when understanding clarifies the rest and the fog becomes mist which becomes transparency.

So, I have come to learn that when my language portrays victimization (whether resulting from life long struggles with anxiety or my more recent struggles with inner ear disability), that I sink swiftly into a self induced chasm of resignation. When my language falters under the weight of whatever ordeal I am suffering, I surrender any power or control I have in the situation and I become nothing more than a sacrifice to my circumstances. However, when I shift the syntax…when I choose words that reflect the strength of a survivor…suddenly, I repossess my strength, my courage, my vibrance. When I look at a situation through the lens of accomplishment rather than through the fog of defeat, it may not change my circumstances, but it certainly alters my perception of them. This isn’t simple stuff. The words, this “survivor speak” may feel hollow at first…futile, for they are just words after all. Eventually, with diligence, the moment arrives when they aren’t just words any more because what once felt empty has not only  become your reality, but transformed your experience of it.

In the same way that words can be employed to tear down and demean or to reconstruct and elevate others in our lives, they can be engaged the same way in our own.

need

I’ve written a good bit this week about where I turn for healing and rest: gratitude, exercise, poetry. My heart is heavy today though, in spite of all of this. Life is tumultuous, you know, and right now the upheaval is pervasive, weakening my spirit, dulling my optimism. I tend to describe this feeling as “heart-achey”…which really just signifies a moment or several where my metaphorical heart (the one that holds the weight of this empathic life), feels as though the stitching is coming loose and that it is about to empty itself. I’m not a meltdown kind of girl. I endure in the face of gale force tempestuous winds. But today, my guard is down and I need a powerful healer.

Today I need music.

~~~“I Am In Need of Music” by Elizabeth Bishop~~~

In this poem, Bishop writes, “Oh, for the healing swaying, old and low,/ Of some song sung to rest the tired dead,/A song to fall like water on my head,/And over quivering limbs, dream flushed to glow!” This is what I need today. The overwhelming harmonious rush of sound washing over me, renewing me in the baptism of its waters and bringing me new life. I need the escape offered in each measure, the fulfillment of the attention my senses have been longing for as they are too frequently muted in the mundane actions of day to day life–dulled by my distraction.

Tonight, I will sit in a church full of people, and musicians will work their alchemy and transform the ache in my heart into the beat of perseverance and the light of hope–their craft, a sustaining force. Tonight, I will allow myself to be engulfed in the beauty of the work of these artists; I will allow myself to escape the world outside that sanctuary (what a perfect word) to be transported elsewhere. I will share this experience with pews full of strangers and friends and we will become a community in that communion…we will become one.

Tonight, I will be intentional. I will close my eyes and feel myself breathe in the joy carried in the air–a gift of the music in the room. And as I exhale, I will release the exhaustion and frustration. And if only for a few minutes, I will be healed.

The respite is going to be spectacular.

(Day 21–three whole weeks!!! This one is short but I like it anyway:) And also, it has been  busy day–just glad I had the time for this!)

escape

It’s been a Mary Oliver kind of day. Her words have nourished me as I meandered rather blindly throughout the sometimes chaotic moments of the last fourteen hours.

I was particularly struck by her poem “Messenger” today. I’ve read this poem before and thought “how lovely”, but today, well, today, it was medicinal. As I read the words and took in their meaning, my inner self paused, took a breath and relaxed. This was the poem that I needed…it was the reminder of my place and my purpose that was absolutely necessary to survival. And this is why I love poetry as I do. It meets me wherever I am and extends what I need in order to find my center.

Today, this is what I needed to read:

from “Messenger” by Mary Oliver

“My work is loving the world.

Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird–

equal seekers of sweetness.

Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.

Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

 

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?

Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me

keep my mind on what matters,

which is my work,

 

which is mostly standing still and learning to be

astonished.”

There is more to this poem, of course, but this is the part that struck me most. This idea that “My work is loving the world…my work,/which is mostly standing still and learning to be/astonished” was what I needed to sustain me today. Because when it comes down to it, no matter how much work I do at school, no matter how stressful that can be, my real work is loving the world. Period. (as an aside, I sort of really love the complete sentence in that first line–it is so delicate and simple as the deepest truths have the potential to be). And sometimes the reminder of that calling to love the world in all its complexity and effortless beauty is required. We blind ourselves in the worries and wants of the world and in our inability to ever really be enough in any given moment and we forget that without the richness of the most basic love–a love that allows us to be still and astonished, the rest is quite worthless.

So, as I proceeded through a day of days, I stopped to observe the wisps of clouds gliding across a serene blue sky, to notice the blades of grass jutting through the rocks, to feel the breeze on my face and the warm embrace of the sunlight. I got out of my own head, saw past my “stuff” and my imperfection and was in the world with eyes open to its wonder. Grateful for such a gift as those moments. Grateful for Mary Oliver for steering me there and grateful for poetry for speaking a language that my heart and mind crave in all moments of all days.

(Day 20–which feels like a landmark?)

 

 

struggle

I am struggling to find my focus tonight and so I’m afraid you will be subjected to my random ramblings (Feel free to abandon me here). Long days at work that translate into writing that doesn’t start until 9:30 are marked by a brain that is moving at a snail’s pace. It’s difficult to sift through the day in search of the moment that should be extracted and elaborated upon and shared. It’s difficult to push past that voice in my brain that is yelling (loudly) “For the love of all that is good in this world, woman, go to sleep!” And tonight is harder than most. But, I’m still here. I’m still honoring the discipline by putting words on the page. I will still get to a point where I click “Publish” even though I do not feel as though a single word of this piece, a piece that is essentially just me treading water, should be published. But I’ve made a commitment to write everyday and I intend to see that through. Regardless of where this goes, even if there is only one more sentence to be written, I made the time, I found the energy, I did the work. I never said that I would publish good writing everyday, only that I would in fact write. I never realized the kind of perseverance this endeavor would require of me…it really just sounded like a fun proposition at the outset…it sounded manageable. And I guess to some degree it has been, but these school nights have made things tougher than I anticipated.

So rather than belabor that point, I’m going to be done for tonight. It feels a little bit like cheating and I’ve made a list of ideas for tomorrow so that installment will not suffer as this one has. And I will leave you with one of my favorite Mary Oliver poems ever…the stillness that I seek is spoken of here. Always grateful for her words, her simplicity and her wisdom. As my words fail, enjoy hers.

(Day 17 — I’m counting it)

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today

Today is a day where I am ever more mindful that speaking out for justice is always necessary, even and especially when it is not easy. Today is a day where I am ever more aware that speaking out for justice is always going to be easier and safer for me than it has been and continues to be for so many others. Today is a day where I am reminded that speaking out for justice runs far deeper than simply posting a quote from a famous(ly assassinated) civil rights leader on social media. Today is a day where I refuse to believe that civil discourse is dead when I have the ability to teach young people just what it looks like and why it is important every day of the school year–the discussions will be difficult but they don’t have to be hateful–they can and should be an opportunity to ask, to listen, to grow. Today is a day where I understand the weight of the world that my privilege allows me to ignore so much of the time, that for others is the absolute heaviness of their constant reality. Today is a day where I call myself into question for nestling into that comfort instead of calling attention to the voices that deserve amplification, instead of fighting every single day. Today is a day where I refuse to be hopeless in a world that seems tilted past repair. Today is a day where I decide that while peace is part of the answer, I cannot wait for it to arrive; I have to live into it loudly and demand it for those who still await its presence (because, quite honestly, what is my peace worth if it is a singular entity, if it is not shared broadly and widely by all–because all deserve the freedom it brings). Today is a day where I am ever more certain that the freedom that allows us to feel triumphant in the world isn’t really freedom until every single one of us is allowed to stand under the protection of its umbrella. Today is a day where I turn my gaze inward with an honest eye to understand  my own bias, to understand my role in recognizing it and in pushing past it because even though that honesty will bring uncomfortable moments, my discomfort pales in the comparison. Today is a day where I recognize the truth of what it means to love my neighbor…to love others because they are a creation of God and because they are human (just like me)…that love is always deserved.

Today is a day where I remember (who I am called to be). Today is a call to action.

(I found this sonnet recently by James Weldon Johnson–I’ve spent some time with it today so I figured I would include it.)

(Day 16 of the king cake season blog a day challenge! This one is short but today was a lot about internal work. This blog speaks to the nature of it–more to write in response in the days to come)

impact

Ask any student who has set foot in my classroom and they will tell you “Mrs. Clark is super passionate about words…words matter after all.” And they would be right, I am sort of constantly in awe of what we as humans are able to do simply in the arrangement and selection of the words we wield. We can brandish them dangerously, carelessly damaging others with rancor and vitriol. Or, we can employ them meaningfully, intentionally provoking thought with depth and weight.

One of the reasons poetry resonates with me the way that it does is that I find myself in constant wonder of the poet’s word craft–of their ability to be so precise in their execution of word economy, while at the same time creating gorgeous imagery or intensity or moments to pause and wonder or heightened emotion or all of these and more. It is the surprise in the organization that gets me, the arrangement I would never have considered that drops my jaw. I love the form that creates the content as much as the content itself.

~~~“Breakage” by Mary Oliver~~~

I say all of this because Mary Oliver died today. Mary Oliver was a poet that I believe, honestly, could reach anyone as she wrote honestly and simply yet somehow in her simple language led readers into the complexity of human emotion and experience. She didn’t require fancy forms or intricate language; she didn’t write beyond her experience, no matter how simple the moments may have been; she didn’t reach for what wasn’t true to her and in maintaining that sincerity, her readers were able to find their true selves in her work.

~~~ From “The Journey” by Mary Oliver~~~

“…

But little by little,

as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly recognize as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do–

determined to save

the only life you could save.”

In the natural world Mary Oliver sought solace and God and understanding of life and its proverbial mysteriousness and through the natural world she brought the rest of us solace and God and an understanding of life. She opened my eyes to not just the beauty in the world around me but to its nuance and to a new way of paying attention to it. Her words, her insight, her description all still my soul.

~~~“Fall” by Mary Oliver~~~

(the last stanza here is just perfection and will alter your perception of rain forever)

And then there are the Mary Oliver poems that walked me through grief at times where grief felt heavier that what I could shoulder alone. Except, I wasn’t alone. She had shouldered it already. She had walked this path and she recorded it in her writing–with hope, with honesty and with love. Through loss, through illness I have almost religiously turned to Mary Oliver’s work as a sort of prayer when my prayers were sort of lost in the wilderness. I turned to her work to restore my hope and my faith, and she never failed me, not one single time.

 “Praying” by Mary Oliver

“It doesn’t have to be

The blue iris, it could be

weeds in a vacant lot, or a few

small stones; just

pay attention, then patch

 

a few words together and don’t try

to make them elaborate, this isn’t

a contest but the doorway

 

into thanks, and a silence in which

another voice may speak.”

 

“…the doorway/into thanks…” Mary Oliver’s work will continue to be a part of my daily reading, my daily stillness, my daily search for peace in the chaos of the world. My gratitude is without bounds–not just for a life well lived, but for a dedication to sharing that life with others through her words…for the impression she has made in my heart and the impact she has made in my vision and in my life. Mary Oliver may have left the physical world today, but she has also left behind her words–a wealth, a storehouse of beauty and reminders of goodness. And that is forever.

(Day 12…I was so sad to hear about Mary Oliver’s passing today, but in writing about her work, I found so much more. Glad for this outlet that allowed for that to happen)