Beloveds, we are just over halfway to through this December labyrinth walk into the dark. The light begins to return on Solstice, on the 21st.
Where I live, the holiday traffic is ramping up to frantic, and the afternoon commute gets long and dark and claustrophobic. Yesterday, I nearly let the long ride home ruin my evening. Being trapped in a box on wheels on a highway in the dark for hours feels too much like my inner state in December.
Today, I need to make sure that I am intentionally working to combat the claustrophobia I feel rising in me as the constricting layers of winter clothes and the darkness and the schedule and the traffic have all closed around me.
First, Breathing: Breathe in. Pause. Breathe out. Pause: Remember last night’s moon. Breathe in, holding the image of moon. Pause: Let go of the traffic. Breathe out. Pause: Yesterday’s lovely morning snow. Breathe in. Pause: Let go of the work ahead. Breathe out. Pause: So many shining, twinkling lights surround me, students and family and friends. Breathe in. Pause. Breathe out. Pause. . .
Second, Art: Yesterday before I went to bed, I watched a little video of comic artist Tim Gula doing an exercise in automatic drawing. It’s kind of like a journal free-write, where you just keep your hand moving and put whatever comes down on the paper. I have noticed that even my doodles have become constricted lately, lines choked and tight. I think that some drawing practice might help me to free up some of this claustrophobic inner space.
Third, Story: I’ve queued up the next book in Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle on my tablet, and I am going to have it along on the ride to school so we can start to listen to it today.
Perhaps claustrophobia isn’t a struggle for you at this time of year. Is it panic, silence or noise, loneliness? Or maybe this is your happiest time. What are the tools you use to cope with the challenges or to mark and celebrate the joys?
Gratitude List: 1. Story 2. Art 3. Breath 4. Wildness 5. Moon
Here we are at the turning into the fourth passage, another day’s journey into the cool darkness.
After a day of really focusing on my breath, I find that I am breathing more deeply, breathing more steadily, although there were moments yesterday when I felt I had split off my core from my head. Like I was breathing from a solid inner steadiness, feeling the ground, but my head was filled with wings.
I was trying to help students meet a contest deadline, and all day they kept coming into my room with last-minute questions about submitting their poetry and stories online. This is one of my great joys, watching them take risks and put themselves out there. I got both anxious and giddy. I lost a couple papers that I needed because I lost my focus. It all came together, and I got most of my own work done, and I think all the young folk got their pieces submitted. Still, the flurry and the bustle made it harder for me to be as present as I could be for a student near the end of the day who lives in a high stage of anxiety. I have been trying to help him to be a more independent writer, and I sort of pushed him out of the nest a little yesterday while I helped another student in the class to complete her contest submission.
I’m not beating myself up, just trying to note how I had a perfect moment to practice what I was preaching about holding a steady breath for others who are anxious, and I missed the chance. I wonder, had I taken two more minutes quietly helping my anxious student set up his document, breathing steadily beside him while he began his work, breathing evenly while we talked about deadlines and how he has plenty of time to complete his short essay, might I have been able to make his afternoon a little calmer and less fraught?
We’re not called on to calm everybody else down. I know I couldn’t have single-handedly solved this young man’s anxiety. Still, it was really the perfect chance to practice the calming breath. It is helpful to look back at the passage we’ve just come through and consider how I might have negotiated it with more intention.
How was your own breathing yesterday? Did you have a chance to steady your own breathing, or to help someone else to breathe through an anxious moment? Shall we continue with strong, calming breaths today? Today, I will step more intentionally into that space of intentionally grounding into my breath when I am with others who are in anxious or dramatic spaces, observing whether it helps to bring us closer to calm.
Breathe in, holding a keen and conscious awareness of the energies swirling around us. Breathe out calmness and quiet, stillness and steadiness. We have our breath. We have these lights that we carry. All is calm. All is bright.
Envisioning: (On Sunday, Michelle asked us to hold the swords-into-ploughshares vision in our heads, to look for stories of people choosing that vision. For the next little while, I am going to look for such stories as my daily morning meditation.)
This is a powerful story, and it’s already been beautifully told by many others. It’s the story of how a community in East Berlin in the 1980s, repressed and suppressed by a harsh and controlling SS, held a ploughshares vision for peace and justice, and contributed to the change that brought about the fall of the wall. Here it is in the words of Simon Smart:
“A less known but vital part of the story was the German Peace Movement that began in East German churches from about 1980. Among a population driven to paranoid suspicion and fear by the pervasive network of Stasi officers and informers, the churches became a base for community discussions and agitation for change. They provided a rare forum to express hunger for individual freedom and a peaceful resolution to Cold War conflict.
In September 1983, at the Protestant Church Congress in Wittenberg, German Pastor Friedrich Schorlemmer organised to have a sword melted down and turned into a ploughshare. This provocative demonstration was picking up on the Old Testament’s vision of peace in the prophets Isaiah and Micah. In East Germany, this became a powerful symbol of a non-violent push for change. It’s remarkable he got away with such an overtly political statement — in those days, and in that place, most people did not.
But it was the grungy, unremarkable city of Leipzig that became the epicentre for popular opposition. From 1980 the Church of St. Nicholas, with only a small congregation of worshippers, began to host Monday night “Prayers for Peace” meetings. Under Pastor Christian Führer, these meetings, which would begin with people reciting the beatitudes from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount — “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God” and so on — soon became a regular meeting where believers were joined by anyone interested in discussing environmental care, disarmament and the right to travel freely.
Momentum built over time. Those gathered would end the meeting by marching together through the streets calling for change. By 1988, 600 people would meet on a Monday. This swelled to 4,000 in September 1989. When, in early October of that year, the government cracked down with arrests and beatings, the stage was set for serious confrontation and the possibility of brutal violence against the protestors. The government promised as much and hospitals were readied for the carnage to come.
On 9 October, in an atmosphere of resolute defiance among both the protestors and the authorities, 6,000 people (their number including hundreds of Stasi officials) turned up to the church, and another 65,000 in the surrounding streets. It was easily the largest anti-communist demonstration in the country’s history.
The crowd set off on a march, holding candles and linking arms, waiting for what seemed an inevitable massacre. Organisers feared the worst but implored their people not to give the riot police any excuse to act against them. The marchers held banners proclaiming, “We are the people,” and called out their slogan, “No violence.” Astonishingly, inexplicably, the guns remained silent. “The only thing [the government] weren’t prepared for was candles and prayers,” said Pastor Führer.
Fifteen days later, 300,000 people turned out on the streets of Leipzig. It became the inspiration for the escalated popular opposition around the country that put so much pressure on the East German regime. These were vital ingredients in what eventually bringing down the wall. Leipzig earned the nickname the “hero city.”
In the days of the Nazi threat, the German church’s story was one of catastrophic failure — collusion, widespread cowardice and self-interest. The role of churches in the demise of communist East Germany, while only one of many factors, is a brighter story. Players in this drama, like Christian Führer, represent some of the best the church has offered: commitment to the greater good; true community engaging, not only the faithful, but those outside the church in a common and righteous cause.
These figures also embodied the radical and counterintuitive teaching of Jesus to resist evil but to refuse violence in doing so. That kind of rare commitment has, on occasion, produced surprisingly positive outcomes: Martin Luther King, Jr and the Selma marches; Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu in post-apartheid South Africa. The Leipzig protests, and ultimately the fall of the Berlin Wall, belong in that noble tradition.”
Today, we turn in to the third passage of this labyrinth. One thing I have noticed as I take this journey every year is that I get breathless. I find myself needing to take big sighs that don’t seem to quite satisfactorily fill my lungs. I’ll be walking in the halls at school and realize that I have been breathing shallowly, skimming the surface of breath.
So I sit or stand still, lift my chin, set my shoulders back, and take a long slow inward breath that goes down to my toes. When I breathe out again, I release some of that breath downward, through the base of my spine, into the Earth. You and I both know that the lungs are the organ of breathing in the body. I know that when we talk about breathing into our guts, we’re activating the diaphragm to get more involved in the activity of breathing. Still, for me, deep healing breath seems to follow more completely when I expand the activity of breathing throughout my body and into the Earth below me rather than simply centering it in my lungs. In the end I come away more grounded.
Try this, today in a moment between moments. Notice your breathing. Are you breathing deeply or shallowly? Settle yourself into a quiet space, either sitting or standing, and straighten your spine just a little. I think we’re trained to do the sudden, ramrod upward stance to quickly correct “bad posture.” This is about subtle movements that allow for a clear passage of air into our lungs. My shoulders go up and back a little, and I feel my spine as the road that connects Earth and Sky within me.
Breathe in. If you count when you breathe, you might try that. For me, I want to avoid regimentation in my breathing, and counting feels like that to me, but to some people, it’s a comfort. As you breathe in, notice your gut expanding, and feel your body open. Breathing out, send at least some of that breath down to your feet and to the base of your spine. This breath is roots that anchor you and hold you, connecting you to Earth.
Sometimes I get my arms involved, moving up and down with the breath, or I’ll shift my torso back and forth like a snake, to bring the breath into the nooks and crannies between my ribs. Roll your shoulders gently, or your neck, if that helps. Or make an audible sound on the outbreath. For me, the key is to do whatever helps me feel the breath filling all of me.
Right now, walking in this velvety morning darkness, I feel the quiet darkness of winter in the breath, and I take in the shadows that surround me. I am not afraid of this darkness. It’s the darkness of a deeply restful night, the darkness of a beloveds arms enclosing me, a regenerating darkness. The darkness in the chambers where the seed rests before it feels the stirrings that cause it to transform.
I cannot deny that I’m still anxious and claustrophobic about the long nights; that’s a feeling I need to keep naming and exploring, but at the same time I can still welcome the quiet restful dark. Walt Whitman said: “Do I contradict myself? Well, then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.”
One more thing about breathing: I have noticed that when I am talking with a student who is anxious or upset, if I subtly and consciously shift my breathing to a deeper level, they unconsciously join me in the deeper breath. I can see a shift, almost imperceptible, in their eyes, a relaxing. Try it when you’re in the presence of someone who is breathing shallowly because of anxiety or anger or weariness. We draw each other deeper as we tend to our own breath.
And so we walk onward, breathing together in the darkness. Breathing in the the darkness. I hear your steady breath, and the breathing of those who accompany us on this journey, and I know that when my breath falters, yours will be there to remind me to deepen.
Envisioning: (On Sunday, Michelle asked us to hold the swords-into-ploughshares vision in our heads, to look for stories of people choosing that vision. For the next little while, I am going to look for such stories as my daily morning meditation.)
The story I think about today is Starhawk’s novel, The Fifth Sacred Thing. In the story, the army of the Stewards is moving up the coast toward a free city/region. The people of the city have founded their civic life on principles based on nonviolence. As they decide how to respond to the coming army, they consider the point that armed resistance has been the chosen path of humanity for millennia, and it hasn’t worked. If they refuse to fight the invaders, they will lose their free way of life. If they find ways to arm themselves and fight, many of their number will die. If they choose a path of nonviolent resistance, many of them are also likely to die, but they might have a chance of preserving their way of life, and they won’t be compromising the principles upon which they’ve based their whole community. They tell the invading soldiers, “There is a place set for you at our table, if you will choose to join us.”
I would spoil the ending for you to tell you more, whether they miraculously “won” the day with their brilliant tactics of nonviolent resistance, or whether they were overtaken by the violent forces in the end. But that’s actually part of the point, isn’t it? We don’t know whether the vision will “work” in any physical/human sense, but we do it anyway because we hold a vision for the possibility for a different way for humans to be human with each other.
Gratitude List: 1. Feeling my wings 2. Grades are ready to submit for Quarter 1. How have we gotten here already? 3. Breath. It’s always there when I need it, and more effective than sugar or coffee for a quick lift. 4. Keeping the resolve 5. The tunnel to Faerie up in the orchard, between the pear and cherry trees.
May we walk in Beauty! Breathe.
Sit in a quiet place, calm and undisturbed. Shift yourself into place. Let your upper body fidget a bit. Shrug and stretch, stretch your spine upwards, making little breathing spaces between all the bone. Sigh. Yawn. Sigh audibly. Settle your bones, making sure your ribcage is straight, your shoulders are restful, your hips are aligned.
Now begin to notice your breath as it enters and leaves the space of your body. Notice where your body rests on the chair, the floor, the earth. As you hold your awareness on your points of contact with earth, begin to draw the breath into your whole body. Breathe not only into your lungs, but into your stomach.
Feel the breath enliven your ribs and your gut. Breathe into the muscles and bones of your arms. Draw it down over your shoulders, swirling down your arms and down to your fingertips. As you breathe out, feel the breath flow out the tips of your fingers.
Draw breath down your spine. Let it flow out the base of your spine. Breathe it into your thighs and down your legs. Wiggle your toes and ankles as the breath fills your feet and trickles out the soles of your feet into the earth.
Breathe. And breathe. And breathe
Now shuffle your upper body once again, like a bird re-adjusting its feathers, and find your way to stillness, letting the breath continue to circulate through you.
Bring your attention to your back. Sit up a little straighter and pull your shoulders back. Can you sense your shoulder blades back there? These are your wingbuds. Breathe into them and out through them. Shift your shoulders as you need to, to maintain your awareness of them.
Feel or imagine them beginning to itch, to swell, to pulse with life. Feel the moment when a small, folded pair of wings bursts through the surface, like the tiny curl of a plant breaking through soil, or a small bird breaking out of an egg. As they grow larger with each breath, notice their color, their texture. Don’t rush to unfold them. Let them develop. Feel them in the space behind you. Roll your shoulders forward. Shrug. Give them space.
Then, when you are ready, on a breath, lift them upward and out. Feel their strength. Feel the way they lift you. Practice opening them and folding them. Notice how they become invisible when you fold them up, how you will be able to go about your normal life with your wings folded against your shoulders and back, and only those who Know will know.
Now when you need them, to give you strength, to help you move from one stuck place to a new open field—when you need to escape—when you need to see something from a distance, to change your perspective—now they will be there for you. All you have to do is to breathe into them, hear them rustle in the space behind you, stretch, and open.
Looking back through some of my previous blog posts, I came upon this again this morning, something that keeps leaping out at me from the past to remind me to open my throat. Today Joss is nine and Ellis is twelve. They must have been three and six at the time of this story:
This morning when we were playing with our gnomes, Joss decided that the gnome house was on fire, and he raced to get a group of gnomes to put it out. “Red! We need all the red gnomes!” Exactly–to put out a fire, it takes lots of red gnomes. Ellis chimed in, “And Minus! We need the Minus Gnome! Because a house with fire Minus the fire is just a house!”
Sometimes I sure would like to use some of Minus Gnome’s magic on me. An anxious Beth Minus anxiety is just Beth. Angst-ridden, anger-struck Beth Minus angst and anger? Beth. So that’s a nice little thing to do with meditation. Of course as soon as I began to work with the idea, it hit me again that the angers and angsts are so often born of compassion and caring, and for those I have been seeking the services of Multiplication Gnome. I need to untangle the compassion from its attendant anger at injustice, its partner anxiety at losses to those I love.
Wow. Look at those words that I wanted to get rid of: Angst, Anxiety, Anger. . .I looked them up, along with their sister Anguish. There at their root is angh-, which comes from the Indo-European language tree, and generally refers to distress of some sort. That lovely vowel–ah–cut short in the back of the throat, closed up along with all hope of breath: Angh!
Fear, shame, anger, distress: what sound emerges when you truly feel them? Angh! Choke.
But still, that lovely vowel–ah–the first we say in so many languages: Mama, Abba, Baba, Dada, Nana, Papa. The opposite of the choke, our family names, our names for the Ineffable Mystery: they release the breath in a tender sigh. Ah. There we go.
When I get really stuck in the Angh, I can dislodge that choke with a little Hahaha, a great belly laugh to force the air back through, a little spiritual CPR, so to speak. Or skip down the street with a Tra-la-la, a little song to start up the rhythm of breathing again. Or a little eureka, a bright discovery with a great Aha!
So the next time I wake up at three in the morning, suddenly filled with the dread of what is happening to this world that I have brought these light-filled children into, or choked with shame for some harshness I have spoken to their tender hearts, I think I will apply the Ah!, the Mama, the Ha! and see if that breath can be a lullaby to take my spirit back to sleep.
Gratitude List: 1. Breathing through the angh- to the aaaaaah
2. Long sleep last night
3. Re-orientation: Not getting stuck in the ruts of rage, but carrying the coals tucked in my apron to use at need
4. So many names for the Great Mystery
5. Building relationships with those who are not human: ducks, cats, trees, rivers, stones. . .
Today’s Prompt is similar to an earlier one, with a single letter change: ______ of _____
Guardian of Dreams
by Beth Weaver-Kreider
She rises from the shadows
when you wander in the dreamscape.
She stands above the doorway
and awaits your greeting.
She gives you the gift of her name
and stands aside that you may pass inward.
1. Enough leftovers for supper. What an odd, delightful mashup it was: Valerie’s lentil and collard soup as the base, with the leftover chicken curry and rice and some leftover noodles. Injera and oatmeal bread.
2. Dreams with messages.
3. Catching my breath. A little.
4. That pink cloud this morning. Breath-taking.
5. Rivers of crows in the sky.
May we walk in Beauty!
Last Night’s Gripping Dream:
We’ve moved to a new house, set on a hill above the barn. From the house, a small row of bushes obscures all but the top of the barn. As we explore the new barn, we’re a little overwhelmed by all the rusty junk and hay bales and mess. Cobwebs are everywhere, and it’s dark and dingy. We hear people walking around upstairs, but we’re too scared to go up there, so I yell, “Get out of our barn!” We go back up to the house.
A little while later, it has snowed, and we see that someone has shoveled all around the barn. We decide we have to confront the squatters. We get in the big red truck and race down the hill, right through the shoveled area and plow into a snowbank.
As we walk up to the barn door, we see a woman crouching in the bushes on the roof area above the barn door. She’s enormous. Heavy, sumo-style, and maybe eight or ten feet tall. She has a Renaissance-style hairdo with a pink rose, and she is completely naked. Her skin is a mocha color and she has enormous and compelling eyes. I ask her her name. She says it’s Panella. (Or Panadella.) I do not feel threatened or anxious about her–I feel like she is sort of a guardian.
Inside, we are utterly astounded. Someone has, in an incredibly short period of time, completely cleaned the barn. The junk is gone. The hay bales and cobwebs are gone. There’s fresh plaster on the walls, neatly placed between barn beams. It’s gently lit, all over, upstairs and down. There must be fifty or sixty people in the barn. One woman is wearing silver body paint, head to foot. She and the others we first encounter seem a little startling, and not particularly friendly, but not threatening. The others we meet are friendlier, eager to show us around, to talk. It’s definitely my kind of party, no loud noises, sort of hushed conversations, but people everywhere, threading themselves through the space.
It is furnished like a house, and downstairs there is an enormous walk-in fireplace with a sort of ditch in front of the fire, and water running through the ditch. In front of that are lit candles. I am aware of how carefully people have placed the candles within the fireplace area, in order to be safe. They take us outside to show us the incredible compost pile they’ve created. They point up the hill to the other neighbors’ house. “Those are the hippie neighbors,” they say. The hippie neighbors’ house is a pavilion-style despite the frigid weather, and the hippie neighbors have their feet up on a low all, and they’re drinking and smoking.
Actually, the ones who’ve created this space aren’t here. They’ve gone out and left their friends there to have a party. There’s a young woman–I think her name is Elise–who used to go to the Waldorf School. A young man is a graduate of LMS. And there’s a third.
I feel incredibly drawn to this dream. There in my inner world, a space I tend to neglect in the rush of the daily, where I thought there would be clutter and ruin, are inviting rooms filled with energy and innovation. Jon pointed out that two of the Creators are from schools where I have taught, so I am wondering if the third might be a BCCC student. After a challenging morning conversation about some of the issues some of our students are experiencing, I spent a good part of yesterday worrying about my students, wondering if I have been doing enough to educate my students about racism and misogyny, about recognizing their entitlement and privilege. I feel like this dream was a message from my deeper self that I need to trust that the daily work bears its fruit, that these people will have the creativity and resilience to create healthy lives. And Panella? I think She is my Guardian.
I can’t see through green,
through this pollen-misted air
to the other side.
These are the step by step days.
Meanwhile, I just keep breathing.
Gratitude List: 1. Communities of women. Light and gentle chat turns a corner into a story, a birth story, tears, smiles, oh-yesses, I-remembers.
2. The world feels washed clean this morning after that lovely rain. I’m still a little anxious about venturing outside while the poplar is in bloom, but breathing is a little easier this morning.
3. Poppies! Did I say poppies? I have a clear memory of being six years old, looking at a book of flowers of the world with a group of kids at boarding school, and everyone was saying their favorite flowers. I really liked the rose mallow. Then someone turned the page and there was a rich crimson bloom with a velvety black center. That one. And it has been my favorite ever since.
4. Ruby Bridges. I was talking about her story with a friend yesterday. There was a moment in our story when the world depended on the courage of a child to confront evil, to be the tide-turner.
5. Last night’s dreams. Reunions, balance, mysterious pathways, reconciliation.
Re-posting a poem I wrote on a dark day back in December.
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers–so many caring people in this world.” — Mister Rogers
Look for the helpers.
I cast a line from me to you.
You cast it outward to those you love.
Fill that web, that basket, that nest, that bowl
with our open wounded hearts,
our prayers, our stones,
our candles, our feathers,
the fine white hair of our grandmothers.
Something to hold the children,
the mothers, the fathers,
a bowl that will witness and hold the grief.
We will be the helpers.
Gratitude List: 1. Breathing in. Breathing out.
2. The way people help. Almost blindly. Just running into the fray. Goodness that goes beyond sense of personal preservation.
3. The wonderful people who help us on Goldfinch Farm. We have such a great crew.
4. Great customers, new and old. I feel so heartened.
5. Mowing the grass. I love to get out on that old riding mower and mow the grass.
What an interesting word, that. One of those that loses some of its value in its overuse. Over-spoken and Under-thought, perhaps. Today, my gratitude list is about Breath-taking Views and Scenes. Places that make me pause in wonder. That take my breath away for a moment. But the act of noticing beauty also gives me breath, sustains me for the often difficult practice of compassion. Breath-giving.
Gratitude List–5 Breath-Taking and Breath-Giving Views that I Noticed Today:
1. The early spring view off Mount Pisgah, down over the bubbles of hills toward the River. Green is spreading, but the leaves have not yet hidden the view.
2. Heading East on 30 across the Susquehanna, looking toward Chiques Rock, with trees along the River frosted white from the morning mist, the poles along the railroad tracks sticking up blackly among them, and the charcoal grey hill and rocks rising beyond.
3. A small oak tree, with its leathery leaves still clinging on, in a stubbly corn field, surrounded by tall yellow grasses like wheat.
4. The very old stone house near the mall–probably once a mill?–surrounded by bone-white sycamores and weeping willows just beginning to don their spring green petticoats.
5. Great blue herons patiently winging through blue sky. Primal.
May we walk in beauty.
I realize my list is treeful. Trees people my consciousness and my heart. Soon the green will come. . .