Mary Oliver writes about “the light that can shine out of a life.” I’ve been resting in that phrase over the holiday weekend.
When I think of “life” the first things that come to mind are not human lives, but those rooted in the green world, the world that sustains me. I thought of light shining out of lives as I deadheaded and watered velvety purple petunias in their hanging basket, leggy now but still blooming richly, as though the first frost is not around the corner. I thought of it as I diced fresh sage, thyme, parsley, and garlic chives from my garden with our sharpest knife to make herbed bread. On my low-carb diet I eat a half a piece a day and these two loaves will last me for weeks. The scent of baking bread with herbs and onion fills the house like late summer incense.
I think of human life, too — strangers, friends and family, all kinds of people, a great tidal wave of humanity that’s straining the planet’s resources to the uttermost limits, but each individual a soul with hopes, dreams, history, wounds, and memories. Each with potential to be a light. Each with equal potential to be darkness.
The thing about light is that it’s meaningless unless we know darkness.
I want to be a source of light in the world. More than that.
I want to be a specific kind and intensity of light for specific people in
specific ways. I’m pleased if my light illuminates a step or two for others, or
provides some comfort, but the light I’m choosing to shine is really directed
at a small handful of people.
Appreciate my light, dammit! Open your eyes! I’m shining for
I’m coming to the reluctant conclusion that allowing light
to shine from my life is where my power ends. The intensity and quality of my
particular light is not in my power. I can’t control the eyes that see it or
the steps it guides or companions.
This morning I took an early walk at dawn. The sky was
orange and pink, and as I was heading home with the sun rising behind me that
light glowed in the trees, which are just beginning to turn the same colors. It
was so lovely my eyes burned with tears.
That light wasn’t for me. It wasn’t mine. Birds and animals and yes, people too, all had their being under that morning sky. The trees bathed in it as though they loved it. I just happened to be one of many awake and about, and I saw. I saw and I was blessed.
Another thing about light is that we can’t see it if we
I wonder sometimes if we’re losing our ability to see lights
that can shine from lives. Are our eyes too weary and distracted by a world full
of visual noise and endless screens to find starlight or firefly light? If we
light a candle in our soul can we find our way back to it when we’re lost in
darkness? Are we able to value only the glaring light of sun or spotlight?
We were cleaning out a storage area under the attic eaves this weekend, and I crawled on my hands and knees with a flashlight, noting wiring that needs attention, dust, the desiccated bodies of wasps, and signs of mice. It struck me that holding a flashlight in a dark place provides illumination in the direction it’s pointed, but the holder can’t actually see the light source itself. Can we ever know the quality and brightness of our own light? Are we able to judge its value or where it’s most needed? Can we control which direction it shines in?
“The light that can shine out of a life.” Light that nourishes. Light that guides. Light that connects us to the web of life that is community. Light that inspires. Yet the value and outcomes of allowing our light to shine is beyond our control, beyond our knowledge.
Letting light shine out of our lives is an offering we can choose to make, and then we’re done. Perhaps the rest is none of our business.
Allowing light to shine out of my life. My daily crime.
I’d love to be one of those serene, appropriately disciplined (as opposed to compulsive or utterly feckless) people who achieve an effective, useful, consistent morning routine.
Even during what I think of as “normal” times when my life was structured predictably by work and other obligations and activities, my morning schedule varied. Now, during weeks of unstructured time, I’m realizing how important it is for me to take responsibility for creating the shape of my life, rather than passively allowing work and other extrinsic forces to do it for me.
On the other hand, spontaneity is good, right? Going with
the flow? Following my bliss?
I’m better at routine than I am at spontaneity. I’m better
at working than relaxing. I get an A+ in productivity and a D at simply being.
I watch people who spend hours a day in front of a screen, reading, or otherwise appearing to do nothing but laze around with a mixture of envy, fury and contempt. How can they do that? I wish I could do that and still live with myself. What a waste of time! I hate myself if I reach the end of the day with nothing to show for it. (Show who?) The shame and guilt of just being and not doing is annihilating.
Doing is also my favorite remedy for anxiety, and that’s
when the dark tentacles of compulsivity wrap around my ankles and start
crawling up my body.
I’ve written before about my tendency to speed, back in the old days before coronavirus. My life was familiar to me then. I knew how to use my time and energy. I felt effective without being compulsive. I thought I’d defeated my old self-destructive patterns. I felt balanced and healthy most of the time.
Then I discovered, to my chagrin, that I was still speeding unconsciously in some parts of my life. It troubled me, and I resolved to bring that behavior into consciousness and change it, which is why I wrote about it. I discovered a great way to pull the plug on unconscious speeding is to develop a practice of sitting in silence daily.
I’m avoiding using the term “meditation” because it’s so loaded, for me at least. I’ve no interest in a guru, a chant or a sacred sound. I don’t have a special cushion or adopt a particular position. That’s all just in my way. What does work for me is sitting comfortably with my eyes closed, concentrating on the natural flow of my breathing. The world doesn’t have to be quiet. The room doesn’t need to be light or dark or smell of incense. I don’t need a special timer. The only thing required is the most difficult, boring part: Stop. Sit my ass down. Breathe.
I call this my Be Still Now time, and I’m annoyed by how powerful it is. I’m annoyed because it can’t be right that sitting, doing nothing but being, is more powerful and peaceful than doing and doing and doing. Everyone knows how important it is to be productive!
The problem with all this pressure to do is that sometimes I can’t stop. It’s a hard thing to explain to anyone who’s not been compulsive.
I start out feeling focused, energetic and excited about a project or task, looking forward to the satisfaction of completing it and looking back on a day in which I didn’t “waste” time. I begin working. I think about the task in front of me, but my mind also wanders as I work, sometimes into dark, fearful places. Pretty soon I’m working a little harder, a little faster, trying not to feel uncomfortable feelings, trying not to remember, trying not to worry.
Time ceases to exist, but vaguely, through my mental and emotional chaos, I realize I’m tired. I’m overheated and my shirt is sticking to my back. I’m filthy. The bugs are feasting on me. I’m thirsty. I feel all those things, but they’re not nearly as important as the noise in my head and my momentum. Doing the project or task (as perfectly as possible) becomes far more important than my state of being. I’m no longer in control of my day or my activity. I’m not pacing myself. I don’t give a damn about taking care of myself. I’m not having fun or feeling satisfied, and I don’t care about finishing. In fact, I hope I never finish. I want to go on and on until I’m beyond thought or feeling. If I stop, something just behind me, hard on my heels, will tear me to pieces.
I absolutely know that if I work hard enough and long enough I’ll find peace, my uncomfortable feelings will resolve, and I’ll be safe and happy and able to rest.
In that state of mind, just stopping is unthinkable. The
very suggestion makes me want to tear out someone’s throat. Part of me realizes
I’m out of control, speeding again, and it’s dangerous and self-destructive,
but I feel unable to make a different choice.
I do, of course, eventually stop. I tell myself I was productive and did good work. I search for that feeling of gratification over a hard job well done, but I can’t find it. I feel more like I’ve been beaten up than anything else. I’m physically exhausted but my thoughts and feelings are churning and I’m pacing the floor, trying to crawl out of my skin, searching desperately for another project to throw myself into.
I’ve acted out this pattern my whole life, and until very recently it didn’t stop until I got sick or physical pain disabled me. I rarely get sick now, and I no longer have physical pain, thanks to my diet. I’ve gotten much better at using my support system and dealing with my feelings more appropriately. Still, the right kind of stressors over a long period of time, combined with not paying close attention to how I’m doing, reactivates my compulsivity.
The best way to pay attention to how I’m doing is to sit for a few minutes every day and just breathe. I’m not sure how, or why, but I’m quite sure it helps. The funny thing is, I don’t inquire within during that time, I just watch thoughts rise in my mind and let them go. Now and then I get a creative inspiration, which I jot down before going back to breathing. I’m not trying to process feelings or figure anything out. I’m not, in fact, doing or producing anything. I’m just sitting and breathing, and it’s so quiet!
I realize, in that timeless space, that peace and safety,
both of which I’ve searched for my whole life, are fully present and always
have been. I can’t chase them down or earn them. They’re not elsewhere. We have
not become separated or severed. I am not lost. Neither peace nor safety can be
found in compulsive doing. All I need to do is be still, be quiet, for just a
few minutes, and they are there.
I’d love to say that I’ll Be Still Now every morning for the rest of my life and never be compulsive again, but it’s probably not true. I’ll get distracted, or bored, or lazy. My routine will change. I’ll make something else more important than my sit time. I’ll self-sabotage in all the ways we do self-sabotage. Fortunately, life will continue to be challenging and provide plenty of things to feel anxious and fearful about, and I will continue to work for growth and health, which means I’ll hold myself accountable and return home, to that quiet daily space in which compulsivity cannot live or take root and peace can find me.
Be. Still. Now.
My daily crime.
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you Are not lost. Wherever you are is called here, And you must treat it as a powerful stranger, Must ask permission to know it and be known. The forest breathes. Listen. It answers, I have made this place around you. If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here. No two trees are the same to Raven. No two branches are the same to Wren. If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you, You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows Where you are. You must let it find you.
I recently read a blog post from one of the minimalist blogs I follow about unplugging from technology for one day a week. Actually, it wasn’t that recent. It was, in fact, in August. I left the post in my Inbox and I’ve been thinking about it.
All right, procrastinating about it.
You see, although it seemed like an attractive idea, I couldn’t unplug in August because I had a family situation that necessitated watching my e-mail closely.
When that was over, I thought about it again, but then I was watching … what? I can’t remember. A possible hurricane down south somewhere? I think so. Anyway, I really wanted to watch it. It was important.
I observed myself both want to unplug for a day and resist
unplugging for a day. It reminded me irresistibly of giving up honey in my tea.
When I came to Maine, I changed my lifelong, mostly plant-based, low fat, low sugar (by this I meant, you know, white sugar) diet to eating keto. More about that journey here, here, here and here. I had, at that point, started every day of my adult life with a large cup of green tea sweetened with a spoonful of honey. It was an important daily ritual. I looked forward to it, counted on it, needed it. On the road, camping, or at home, I had to have my green tea and honey in the morning. I could do without sleep, hot and cold running water and food, but my morning tea was nonnegotiable.
Honey, that delicious golden elixir I used to buy by the gallon in spite of the cost, is a carbohydrate. Our bodies do not distinguish between plain old white sugar, honey, agave or any other kind of “natural” or “organic” sugar. For me, this means inflammation, autoimmune disease and chronic pain.
I was determined to regain my health. The daily dose of
honey had to go.
I have an extremely hostile relationship with addiction, as
my family of origin is affected by it and I know I’m genetically and
behaviorally predisposed. I’ve stayed far, far away from any substance or
behavior that I thought might potentially become addictive for me. At least,
that’s been my intention.
However, life is going on while we’re deciding who we will
not be and what we will not do, and although I was aware of how much I depended
on my morning cup of tea, green tea is good for you, right? No harm in that
Except I realized, after day two or three of tea without honey, that the tea was pleasure. The honey was addiction. I needed it. I craved it. I was miserable and angry and deprived without it. My body needed that first hit of carbohydrate in the morning, needed it desperately because I was basically chronically malnourished and addicted to carbs.
I was completely chagrined. Life is very humbling sometimes. Have you noticed?
Me being me, all I needed was to feel how much I depended on the honey to become determined to give it up. I was building a new life, including eating a massive breakfast of animal fat, meat and eggs every morning immediately upon rising. I went right on drinking tea, but I stopped using honey. I stopped needing honey because I’d finally figured out how to feed myself appropriately. In time, the craving went away, along with the majority of carbs in my diet and chronic pain and inflammation.
Make no mistake, though. I whined and complained and bitched every step of the way. For a time, I considered giving up tea altogether. I would never enjoy it as much again. The honey enhanced the flavor, and it just wasn’t the same without it. What was the point? Getting out of bed was no fun. The morning was no fun. Never again would I have a big cup of Earl Grey tea with lemon and honey and spend an hour sipping and reading a good book on a snowy afternoon, etc., etc., etc. It was pathetic and maddening. I hated myself and everyone else, and I resented my physical need to delete carbs from my diet.
I couldn’t help noticing how similarly I felt about unplugging from technology for even one day, in spite of priding myself on not being captive to it. I have a cell phone I hardly ever use. It’s an effort to turn it on every three days or so and check for messages. I don’t use social media. Left to my own devices, I’d never watch TV. The only tech I really use is my laptop, but I use that for many hours every day. I’d love to be able to honestly say all that use is writing, but it’s just not so.
I check the headlines on MSN, even though I know it’s all click bait and I rarely believe much of what I read in the “news.” Then I check the weather forecast. I check my e-mail accounts. I read the Google news headlines, not as sexy and sensational as MSN and slightly more reliable. Maybe. I bank online. I run the blog online. I do research. I check on local movies. I play solitaire.
I play a lot of solitaire.
I loved the sound of unplugging from all this for a day. It
was such a good idea I wondered why I hadn’t tried it before. As soon as I
looked at my calendar with the intention of planning an unplugged day, I began
to recognize resistance.
A lot of resistance.
I didn’t want to admit it. I use less tech than anyone I
know. I’m smug about staying away from GPS, social media and the need to have a
cell phone surgically attached to my person. The truth is, however, that I’m
just as caught in the addictive net of tech as anyone else.
My choice about all this was to leave the post about
unplugging in my mailbox, where I’d see it several times a day (because I check
my e-mail countless times a day), and sit with my chagrin, my resistance and my
recognition of my own compulsion to remain plugged in. I’ve been doing that for
weeks now, alternating between resentment and amusement.
For some reason, late Saturday I decided I was going to take
the bull by the horns and stay off the Internet on Sunday. Not off the word
processor, but off the Internet. No after-breakfast check on the headlines,
etc. while I drank my morning green tea (unsweetened). No first solitaire game,
during which I thought about where to start working. No e-mail.
I needed to know I could do it, no matter how uncomfortable
Minimalism is an amazing practice. It starts externally with objects, but once I began to look at my life in terms of what really matters and all the stuff that obscures and distracts from that, the internal work took over. My small experiment with unplugging from the Internet was a perfect illustration of the dynamic of unconscious clutter.
Sunday was the most spacious day I’ve had in months. I looked at the clock twenty times in disbelief. The day seemed to have about four extra hours in it. It was a beautiful autumn day, a day off from work, a day in which I didn’t have to go anywhere or do anything. I got out the crock pot and made a keto version of spaghetti meat sauce with no pasta. I did some good writing. I read. I stripped the bed and did laundry. I put on some music and exercised. I prepared for the work week ahead.
On Monday morning, I came up the stairs to my attic workspace and opened up the Internet to see what I’d missed.
I had more spam than usual in my e-mail, because I hadn’t checked every hour or so and deleted it as it came in. My bank account was just as I’d left it (darn it!). The headlines were the same old headlines. The autumn weather managed to exist without me having read the forecast. I’d somehow navigated a whole day without sitting down to play a game of solitaire while I thought about the next step.
It was an eye-opening experiment that will now become a weekly
habit. It’s hard to think about totally unplugging and going screenless for a
day, but not as hard as it was before Sunday. I am a writer, but writing is
still possible the old-fashioned way, with paper and pen.
As I’ve worked on this post the last couple of days, my partner sent me a provocative article about our relationship with our smart phones. I’m not the only one rethinking my relationship with tech and clutter in general.
Instituting simpler Sundays without the intrusion of the Internet. My daily crime.