Advent 3: Breathing in the Dark

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.

Ritual for Inhabiting the Darkness

On this Saturday between Good Friday and Easter, the poetry prompt is to write about darkness.

Ritual for Inhabiting the Darkness

I.
Stand in the doorway.
Let the light stream in over your shoulders.
See your shadow.
Breathe into the stillness that awaits you..

II.
Leave the the lighted rooms behind you.
Walk forward onto the trail
which your own shadow has laid out before you,
until you have left the light so far behind you
that it is only a memory of light.

III.
Listen to the breathing of the darkness.
Become a seed in the waiting soil of the dark.
Feel how the darkness holds the pulsing life within you.

IV.
Wait.

V.
Crack open.
Expand into the darkness.
Send your roots down.
Send your twining tendrils upward.
Grow.

Into the Dark, December 17

Every year at this time, I feel the anxiety and restlessness begin to rise within me, and the cold settles into my bones. Every year, I need to consciously ease my spirit into the season. This year, from the beginning of December until Epiphany, I will set it down here on the blog. May we journey into the darkness with intention and tenderness.

When we hiked the Appalachian Trail, there were those moments when we were climbing a mountain, when we felt like we were there. The path began to level out, the trees got a little shorter, the breezes seemed to signal success. So often, that was just the notice, just the heralding of the top and not the top itself. Often there was more climbing, more pushing ourselves to that last burst of energy necessary before we could find a place to sit and look down at the world below us.

It happened over and over again, that moment when I was sure we’d made it, only to have to climb another half hour or more, legs and back aching, longing for a break.

That’s this week. I can taste it, the moment of turn and shift, the dawn of that Lightreturn sun. But it is not here yet, and I have a week to go, pushing myself through this week yet, until I can take a break and rest in the darkness, marveling at the returning light.

So push on is my small phrase for the day. Feel the breeze, gather in the feeling of a journey almost accomplished, keep a keen eye peeled for the destination. But push on, push through the weariness and the desire to be done, to be there already. Use the available energy to get the necessary work done.


Gratitude List:
1. Little bursts of energy
2. When characters and ideas in books seem to spill out into real life
3. That injera with curried lentils and potatoes and cabbage and quinoa was really delicious. Even the sick child wandered to the table to eat it.
4. Sick child did not throw up yesterday
5. The light WILL return.

May we walk in Beauty!


Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s poem “Protest” published in 1914:

To sin by silence when we should protest
makes cowards out of men. The human race
Has climbed on protest. Had no voice been raised
Against injustice, ignorance and lust,
The inquisition yet would serve the law.
And guillotines decide our least disputes.
The few who dare must speak and speak again,
To right the wrongs of many.


“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.”
— J.R.R. Tolkien LOTR The Two Towers


Good rules from Rob Breszny:
“Don’t make nasty comments about yourself behind your own back.
Do play soccer in bunny slippers at dawn in a supermarket parking lot with a gang of Vipassana experts who have promised to teach you the Balinese monkey chant.
Do not share deep secrets with creatures you don’t like.
Do wear a T-shirt that says, “Of all the things I’ve lost, I miss my mind the most.”
Don’t glide into a bar, scout around for the person whose face has the most pain etched in it, and ask that person to come home with you.
Do pretend sometimes that maybe you mean the opposite of what you’re saying as well as what you’re saying.
Don’t pile up framed photos of old flames in a vacant lot and drive a monster truck over them.
Do stage a slow-motion water balloon fight.
Don’t gaze into a mirror and spout, “God damn you, why can’t you be different from who you are?!”
Do shake your fist at the night sky as you call out, “I defy you, stars!”
Do not put handfuls of dead ants in envelopes and mail them to people you’re mad at.
Do run along the tops of cars during a traffic jam, escaping from the bad guys as you make your way to a helicopter that takes you to a spot hovering over an erupting volcano, into which you drop the Buns of Steel video.
Don’t put your soul up for auction on eBay or pine for people who are sitting right next to you.”

Into the Dark, December 12

Every year at this time, I feel the anxiety and restlessness begin to rise within me, and the cold settles into my bones. Every year, I need to consciously ease my spirit into the season. This year, from the beginning of December until Epiphany, I will set it down here on the blog. May we journey into the darkness with intention and tenderness.

One of my favorite quotations from anywhere comes from Mary Oliver’s “Sometimes.” Actually, several of my favorite quotations come from that poem, but this one is for today:

     “Instructions for living a life.
     Pay attention.
     Be astonished.
     Tell about it.”

This might be just the thing I need right now, in the endurance time, in the waiting time, in the polar opposite moments of silence and frenzy that mark this season. In this holding pattern where I find myself in the shortening days, in this time of focusing inward, it can be hard to keep my eyes up and out. But this, too, is the work of this season. This is why I am quieting myself. This is why I am breathing extra carefully and intentionally: So I can look around, and see what I can see.

I think I am quoting the Bible here: “Watch. Wait. For the hour is at hand.” Today’s word will be watch. Notice. Pay attention. And then be astonished. Today’s word has homework. What will I see, if I train my senses outward with just a little more intention than usual? And how will that affect my balance in this time–to keep part of my gaze focused inward, while part of my gaze is focused more intentionally outward?



Gratitude List:
1. The music program at my school
2. My parents
3. Watching and waiting
4. Scarves
5. Chocolate

May we walk in Beauty!


“Living is a form of not being sure, not knowing what next or how. The moment you know how, you begin to die a little. The artist never entirely knows. We guess. We may be wrong, but we take leap after leap in the dark.”
—Agnes De Mille


“But in a society seeking sameness and assimilation, while fleeing its most painful secrets, creative people are inevitably marginalized or even punished… Artists often raise the questions society seeks to mask and in doing so provoke its ire.” —Carol Becker, in “Surpassing the Spectacle”


“Write it on your heart
that every day is the best day in the year.
He is rich who owns the day, and no one owns the day
who allows it to be invaded with fret and anxiety.
Finish every day and be done with it.
You have done what you could.
Some blunders and absurdities, no doubt crept in.
Forget them as soon as you can, tomorrow is a new day;
begin it well and serenely, with too high a spirit
to be cumbered with your old nonsense.
This new day is too dear,
with its hopes and invitations,
to waste a moment on the yesterdays.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson


“To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.”
—Mary Oliver

Into the Dark, December 3

Every year at this time, I feel the anxiety and restlessness begin to rise within me, and the cold settles into my bones. Every year, I need to consciously ease my spirit into the season. This year, from the beginning of December until Epiphany, I will set it down here on the blog. May we journey into the darkness with intention and tenderness.

I am part of a church that always seems to meet me exactly where I am at the moment. Yesterday Mindy reminded us that the idea of Advent is out of sync with the cultural rush to Christmas. Advent is about silence and waiting, about getting in touch with the sense of loss, the awareness of the injustice, the fear of the darkness. I found my way there automatically this year. And the spiritual discipline of Advent is to sit with those crunchy emotions, while actively living into the anticipation for the new thing that will come. Breathing in the darkness.

We sang “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” and Jim had asked six of us to solo on the verses. My verse was number 3: “O come, Thou Day-Spring / Come and cheer / Our spirits by Thine advent here / Disperse the gloomy clouds of night / And death’s dark shadows put to flight.” That was the verse I needed in this shadowy place.

And then Michelle, for the time of Confession, simply had us Breathe, while she read a prayer. So. My word for this Monday, the beginning of another long week, is Breathe


Gratitude List:
1. Belonging to communities of beloved people who tend each other’s spirits
2. The blue heron who flies over the highway at Columbia. I am a little frightened for him, actually. On one of his recent flights, he went too low, and was nearly hit by a car. It’s been strange, though, how in the last three days, I have seen him fly over the highway three times as I drove past, and at three different times of day. He’s restless, too.
3. The way the children have passed my by. Ellis is making a fancy speaker for Christmas, cutting out holes in the sides of an old speaker he was given for free at a yard sale, and installing computery things.
4. Poetry
5. Rituals, like the burning of candles in the dark of the year.

May we walk in Light!r

Into the Dark: December 1

Every year at this time, I feel the anxiety and restlessness begin to rise within me, a claustrophobic pressure in my soul. The darkness begins to feel overwhelming, and the cold settles into my bones. Every year, I need to consciously contend with the darkness, to ease my spirit into the season. This year, from the beginning of December until Epiphany, when we proclaim the light really and truly returned, I will set it down here on the blog. Knowing how the season hits me, I will give myself permission for some minimal days, a sentence or two, or soothing words from another poet or writer instead of my own. May we journey into the darkness with intention and tenderness.

The first panic rises
when the days begin to dwindle,
when the darkness fills the afternoons,
and each day-cycle offers less light.

At first, I cannot make peace with darkness,
cannot move, cannot stop moving,
cannot rest for the restlessness.

In the last month, the dark has become
something like a living creature,
a dragon or a bear that pursues me
down the tunnel of the year.

So. First, we feel the panic,
name the restlessness,
sit with the great bear of darkness,
no matter how restless,
no matter how afraid,
no matter how filled with dread.

As the dark surrounds my soul
and presses into the light-filled rooms,
I will ask its name, and listen
for the words it has to teach me.

Today, I think the name is insufficiency.
Within myself, I fear I do not have reserves
of patience, or goodness, or strength,
of time, or will, or energy
to make it through. Insufficiency
is an ache in my bones, a rodent
gnawing in the back of my brain.

The trick I am trying is simply to sit
with the names that come,
not to deny the ugliness or fear.
I will not end this with an affirmation
that denies the reality of the feeling.

Today, I will meet only one goal,
and then perhaps I will find the strength
for another, and another.
I will find the inner resources
for a single task at a time.


Today’s Gratitude:
Yesterday, due to some schedule changes, I had an ad hoc study period with students who are not usually in my classes. After lunch, a spirited group came laughing into my room to ask me to settle a silly argument. They pointed to a blue circle on a package of gummy fruit. “What is this this?” they demanded. When I said I was sure it was a blueberry, giggles erupted. Some said blueberry, some said grape.

It was a good-humored debate among a group of four girls from different places in the world: Bahrain, US/Russia, China, and Belize. One of them has a sign language interpreter. They weren’t ignoring their differences or trying to be all the same–they were reveling in their differences, finding delight in each other and in their difference of perception.

We just kept up the conversation for the rest of the period, and two others came in just after, and joined, these two from Ethiopia. The playful conversation grew and expanded, and soon someone was asking these two what it was like to be twins, and everyone was sharing stories.

I know that we don’t always meet our goals to be as inclusive as we want to be. We still have separation of race and ethnicity and social class and identity at our lunchroom tables, but we do break through. We do expand beyond our little circles. We have times of totally un-self-conscious openness when we delight in our stories together.

Shifts

Gratitude List:
1. How time shifts grief to a different space. This is the week, thirteen years ago, when my first child would have been due. I lost the pregnancy early, at thirteen weeks, but I was new to the horror of loss in those days, and it hit me like a truck. Today, it sits differently in me. Still, it wants to be noticed, to be remembered.
2. The light is coming back. We still have a long way to walk until Sunreturn, but it will come again. This year is harder than some, the claustrophobia more intense and grinding, and it’s hit me earlier. I am grateful for whatever lessons it has to teach me.
3. Coffee and chocolate
4. Getting it done, slowly but surely
5. Innovation and change

May we walk in Beauty!

The Stories

Gratitude List:
1. Paint on canvas
2. The power of words
3. Where dreams take us
4. Rain
5. Summer schedules

May we walk in Beauty!


“You don’t have anything
if you don’t have the stories.”
—Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony
***
“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” —Lilla Watson
***
“A poem is not a puzzle, even if it’s puzzling at first. Instead, it’s a highly selected parcel or capsule of language meant to burst into your psyche and change you in some way. Poetry is the life blood of our language, and it’s meant for everyone, not just academics or young people in school. Poetry is in a word: consciousness.” —Cathryn Hankla
***
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
—Leonard Cohen (September 21, 1934 – November 10, 2016)
***
“Like a bird on the wire,
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free.” —Leonard Cohen
***
“I have become convinced that the most serious and unaddressed worldwide challenge is the deprivation and abuse of women and girls, largely caused by a false interpretation of carefully selected religious texts and a growing tolerance of violence and warfare.” —Jimmy Carter
***
Tom Joad, from John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath:
I been thinking about us, too, about our people living like pigs and good rich land layin’ fallow. Or maybe one guy with a million acres and a hundred thousand farmers starvin’. And I been wonderin’ if all our folks got together and yelled…

As long as I’m an outlaw anyways… maybe I can do somethin’… maybe I can just find out somethin’, just scrounge around and maybe find out what it is that’s wrong and see if they ain’t somethin’ that can be done about it. I ain’t thought it out all clear, Ma. I can’t. I don’t know enough.


This is second-draft version of something I wrote at the Writers’ Retreat this past weekend:

It was dark, dark midnight, see. No moon, and clouds between us and the stars, and we’d given everything up for dead.

What else could we do? How could we not? With all that came before, and all we knew was certain to come after.

And the sky was just filled up with midnight, and our hearts were filled up with sky, because we could no longer bear to house that awful stench of despair within us.

And so we danced.

What else could we do? How could we not? Someone started humming there in the cold starless dark, not to fill up the space with sound, you see, because the space was filled, already filled with the indigo darkness of midnight, and with the sense of each other.

And so someone started humming, tunelessly almost, and someone else took it up, almost like a harmony. Another one began to tap a rhythm just like a baby’s heartbeat or the beating of a butterfly’s wings, and then, all around, there were rustling in the darkness, people swaying, shifting, standing up.

Feet took the rhythm, and hands and fingers clapped and snapped, and the humming broke into song. No one now can remember the words we sang, be we all knew they were a prayer. To the Great Mystery that surrounded us, or to some smaller goddess or god, or to the Truest, Best Thing within ourselves perhaps.  All One Thing, that, I suppose.

We felt each other in the the midnight as we sang, as we danced, and the feeling was like seeing, and the seeing was a dance itself. And we whirled on that lost and desolate plain in that place of utter midnight.

And when we had sung and danced and whirled and thundered there, we lay upon the ground, in jumbles and heaps, upon the green, green grass (we knew in our Seeing hearts that it was green) and we breathed the holy darkness around us. What else could we do? How could we not?

And we ourselves were the stars and the moon and the sun. And it was good.

And it was the end.
And it was the beginning.
Holyholyholyhallelujah.

Response Poem

Today’s prompt is to write a response to one of the previous poems from the month. I chose my April 27 poem.

There once was a girl
who was so afraid of spiders
that when a web of song,
a web of prayer,
came floating to her
on a breeze, she ran
as fast as she could
in the other direction.

There once was a girl
who was so afraid of darkness
that when a quiet veil
of comforting shadows
fell about her,
she fell down in terror
and hid her head
until the staring sun
came out again.

There once was a girl
who was so afraid of heights
that when her friends
sang bridges that led
to safer meadows,
she could not unfreeze
her footsteps from the Earth
to flee toward the havens.

Whenever she ran from her fears,
they always caught her.
Whenever she froze in terror,
she found herself engulfed.
I would like to say she learned
to reach her hands toward her friends
and find her way home.


Gratitude:
I am grateful today for the concentric and interlocking circles of community in my life, for the people who keep their protective eyes on my children, who teach and mentor them and love them.

May we walk in Beauty!

To Withhold is to Perish

    
Images from the morning’s walk.

Saturday’s Thoughts:
“Daughter, the songs of women
are the first words of children” —Abby E. Murray
***
“Our vitality is inextricably bound up with creativity. Like a tree whose expression is fruit, giving our gifts is what keeps life pushing through our veins. It’s what keeps us feeling alive. As anyone who has strayed too far from their creativity knows, without it every corner of one’s life can fall prey to a terrible greying spread. As Kahlil Gibran writes about trees in an orchard, ‘They give that they may live, for to withhold is to perish.” —Dreamwork with Toko-pa
***
“If we want children to flourish, to become truly empowered, then let us allow them to love the earth before we ask them to save it. Perhaps this is what Thoreau had in mind when he said, “the more slowly trees grow at first, the sounder they are at the core, and I think the same is true of human beings.” —David Sobel
***
“What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb – but the darkness of the womb?” —Valarie Kaur


I’ve always wanted to take more art classes. I love to sketch and doodle. Still, I haven’t taken many classes, and I feel like I don’t  have a lot of courage about getting images on paper. I love certain comic book and animated art, and I always find myself wanting to draw “like that.”

So for the next month, I am going to try to commit to doing one sketch page a day. I have borrowed Shaun Tan’s The Bird King from the school library, and today’s sketch is sort of a copy and sort of an extension of one of his drawings. I am going to try to be brave enough to sketch some things directly from life and from photos as well. Just today, I learned some things about line and shading. I hope I can learn to apply them.


Gratitude List:
1. Yesterday’s  Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration at school. Good music, powerful quotations.
2. Geese all over the sky
3. The office staff and dentists and hygienists at the place where my children get their teeth cleaned. They’ve always been understanding and friendly and helpful.
4. Walking outside. I can’t really bear the cold, and I haven’t spent more time outside than I absolutely have to for several weeks now. It was nice to have a balmier morning for some outside play.
5. The Emergency Women’s Shelter in Lancaster. I always have to gear myself up for the long night awake, but it’s good work, and I always come away inspired by the women I meet.
6. The Women’s Marches.

May we walk in Beauty!