August 28, 2013

Reclaiming Fall

It's late August, and for the first time in years, I feel an absence of dread. Human behavior is fascinating. While walking the must-be-an-academic path, I regularly made rationalizations: it's okay if I'm exhausted all term, because I get some breaks where I can sleep and maybe create; it's okay if I let autumn slip away, because I must give myself over to my job (and, really, I had a good summer).

No longer in academia, I can build a new relationship with fall; I can let it fully into my heart. The changing leaves, cooler air, tasty apples, garden closing, animals gathering--all of this I can experience completely; no need to hold back.

Teachers have a schedule that aligns with the seasons. I'm not sure of other professions where specific seasons are blocked out--lost in the busyness.  (I'm sure they exist.) Sometimes the busyness is so great that all seasons are lost.

Nature grounds me. It provides easy access to the present moment.  And the seasonal changes supply awareness practice: what's different today? How exactly is it different? What emotions do I project onto the change? 

This year I'm especially grateful to walk beside autumn; to lean into her and see what she's about.  And I welcome company along the path.

August 25, 2013

Life is Difficult

I feel helpless. Not the helplessness that might accompany depression (on the contrary, I am filled with and empowered by choice). But I feel helpless with regard to my mom's pain and suffering. And she's really suffering. 

I shared my raw sadness when mom moved to a care center. It's been a life-long process to understand I can't save her. Yet I still relied on my ability to help her. When I sat with her compassionately, I could see her relax. When I listened, she smiled appreciatively. I didn't realize how tightly I clung to those moments--those moments when I could see my mom's response. I helped her. 

Now she's flat: unresponsive, lost in depression, hopeless.  And I'm helpless. It's a new layer of grief.

It's hard to reconcile that being helpless doesn't equate to not caring. It's easy to understand intellectually (I know I can't help her, yet I still love her). But emotionally, it's a more difficult truth to embrace. I love her, so I really want to help her. That's the place in myself I'm trying to nurture. When I feel helpless, I let myself cry. I let myself love my mom; grieve her. And I try to be kind with myself. 

This weekend, I had space (in the peacefulness of nature) for reflection. I realized I'd probably had my last meaningful interaction with my mom. And it wasn't when I visited in July; it was back in May. I showed her photographs and asked her about the hardships she felt. We had a conversation. It may have been our last. Even though her physical body could keep her alive for years.

I've grieved my mom in many ways over many years. It's been difficult to be her daughter. But I don't want the difficult times to overshadow the positive moments--and they exist, to be sure. Sylvia Boorstein talks about a plaque she saw in the early years of her meditation practice. The plaque read, "Life is so difficult, how can we be anything but kind?" What a beautiful way to work with the difficult. Be kind. And where did I learn kindness? From my mom. From her I learned empathy (deep empathy) and the importance of small kindnesses. 

My mom has lived a difficult life; and she's also kind. I love her, yet I can't help her. I'm gathering memories from her friends. Lovely, poignant memories that honor my mom--the pieces of her that depression has eclipsed, but that I can always hold in my heart. 

August 19, 2013

Beauty in Crowds?

True confession: I'm crowd averse. I prefer small gatherings to big crowds. I associate crowds with noise, frenzy, and over-stimulation. But crowds are part of life. (Sigh.) So recently I've tried to find beauty in crowds--both with my camera and with my heart. 

Sometimes I get hooked by the stories in my mind. Even further, I believe I'm a big player in other people's lives--either thinking I can save people or worrying about their thoughts of me.  But here's a hard reality: I'm not the biggest player in anyone else's story. And crowds provide me this perspective. I can viscerally understand my impact. Yes, my actions have impact (and heartfelt action has more positive effect), but the impact isn't blown out of proportion. I don't believe I'm worthless nor do I believe I'm all-powerful. I'm just me, in a crowd. In this way, anonymity can be a balm.

But I never want to lose my empathy. I've heard meditation teacher Pema Chodron describe a compassion exercise, "just like me." Just like me, that person--right there--wants to be loved; to be happy; to not suffer. Just like me, each person in this crowd experiences joys and sorrows. This reflection allows me to see the face of each person in a crowd and feel compassion; compassion in a group of strangers--what a gift.

Via photography, the depiction of crowds is a complex activity. If I focus on the personal--a few faces--then I haven't captured the crowd. But if I focus on the masses, the visual is uninteresting. I've chosen the purposeful out-of-focus shot, so the crowds are colorful circles and shapes. Their beauty is abstractly revealed and the details are left to the viewer's imagination. In this way, crowds are an art form. 

If I'm mindful, crowds quiet my internal story and widen my compassionate view. Crowds are colorful shapes of humanity. Indeed, there is beauty in crowds. The next time I'm crowd-averse, I just need to look deeper. Perhaps this is a rule for all of life (when averse, look deeper).

August 15, 2013

Making Space

Recently I've craved space. Space to patiently sit with my creative ideas. Moments (long moments) of active non-doing. I want breathing room. Just when I needed it, Kristin and Meredith sent this prompt: negative space. A place to rest.  It's interesting how some things align (and others are completely out of whack). I'm grateful for this artistic cue. It connects my visuals with my intentions.

Negative space is a gift in photography. For the viewer's eye, it's a place to rest. No over-stimulation, just easy focus on the subject with extra peaceful space. Negative space is also a gift in life. Our busy schedules often allow no room--no room for life to interrupt. And life always interrupts. People get sick, emotions arise, cars don't start, accidents happen, bad things happen to good people.

If we don't actively make space, we can feel assaulted by life. (And if we incessantly do and distract when we have space, we can feel empty.) But with precious breathing room, we can help others while taking care of ourselves. We can experience life rather than racing through the day. We can know we're okay in this moment, with this breath. It might seem like everything's gone to hell, but really, it hasn't. If we find make the space, then we have time to reflect.

This week I've tried to stay very curious, especially when I have breathing room. What's the state of my heart in this moment? What am I feeling? What actions give me energy and what actions drain my energy? What am I projecting on others that's actually my own internal storm? How can I stay true to myself while navigating a new creative path?

It's been a lovely (and difficult) week of reflection. Only possible because I made space.

August 10, 2013

Don't Try to Be the Fastest

The lojong teachings are 59 mind-training slogans. One of the sayings: "Don't try to be the fastest." This one resonates with me right now. It doesn't say "don't be the fastest." It's all about intention: "Don't try to be the fastest." Don't try to be the first person to respond (or say something witty) in a conversation; don't try to be the first person to comment on a friend's photo (or blog or Facebook status); don't try to be the first person with the most creative, coolest idea in the whole world.

Because that place of intention necessarily rushes the process. Trying to be the fastest leaves little space for sincerity, reflection, and connection. 

I participate in limited social media, yet even I feel urgency from such sources. Of course, it's my own self-imposed urgency, but sometimes I buy into it. I spend time reacting (trying to be the fastest) instead of being with what is. I take an action, when no action is necessary--when non-doing would be the more skillful path.

Leaving academia has opened new creative channels for me. In fact, the doors are blown wide open--the ideas spill from me. Yet this is precisely a time to be patient; to not grab onto something that might bring temporary safety (or an external stroke). It's time to ride out my creative ideas. To sit with them. To let them develop organically. To not try to be the fastest.

August 8, 2013

Places of Rich Tension

My friend Ronan recently shared an interesting life tension: freedom in knowing she can switch jobs versus distraction in searching for the next best thing. Life is filled with rich tensions. The specifics are different for each of us, but the tension is the same--it's a fine line to walk, leaning heavily in either direction takes us off course. Really, it's a place to pay attention. Inevitably we'll lean and fall. But if we're aware, we get up and start again. We need the tension to keep us on the path--that's what keeps life interesting. So it's rich; it's juicy. Yet if we're not mindful, we can lose ourselves.

Ronan's observation intrigued me. It prompted me to see rich tensions in my life:
Wanting to help versus wanting to control;
Connecting with others versus feeling over-stimulated;
Creative flow versus get-this-all-done-now;
Discipline versus rigidity;
Feeling difficult emotions versus distraction from these emotions;
Long-term goals versus short-term results;
Giving to others versus regular self-care.

I use the word "versus," yet I'm not sure that's appropriate. Sometimes there's a direct conflict, but mostly there's a grayness. These things exist together. The tension between them makes the journey interesting. And the back-and-forth keeps me fresh. The richness comes from viewing the transition. When does my creative flow morph into get-things-done mode? If I can catch this (even once it's too late), then I can make a change. And I've learned something important. The more I notice, the more I walk the middle path.

August 6, 2013

It's Not a F***ing Book

The reality has hit: I'm no longer a professor. School is not my structure. Instead, I take photographs, connect with people, write short pieces for my blog and longer pieces for possible publication. I make space for my writing--how can I share in a way that's new, interesting, and honest? What's my authentic voice?

Yet ego cares little about authenticity. My ego wants a print book with a respected publishing house. Oh, and a great review from the New York Times--something like, "Jordan writes intelligently, yet with raw emotion. Her insights are keen and her writing is beautiful." I shouldn't be surprised. In academia, a well-respected book is the path to success. But I'm so tired of ego's expectations.

I often write free-hand in a notebook before typing on my laptop. During these writing sessions, my emotions flow and creative seeds are planted. Recently a mantra arose: it's not a f***ing book! I'm writing to find my voice; to see what has heat. I'm writing to write, not to produce. And my work might take unusual forms--shapes I won't recognize for months. Like I said, it's not a f***ing book. This makes me smile every single time. It's my (foul-mouthed) bell of mindfulness that brings me back to myself. It brings me back to why I love writing, even when the process is hard.

My ego is focused on external validation. It sabotages the very work I hold dear. And it's speaking very loudly right now. Because at the end of the month, I no longer get a paycheck. Can I make a living through my writing? I don't know. But I'll try. And in this way, I stay true to myself.