Posts tagged: friendship
April 5, 2013

Easing into Spring

“May” by 5ftinf

At the vernal equinox, I stayed with a dearest friend in two bright rooms in the rear of a bungalow in Los Angeles. The setting felt like a tropical version of The Secret Garden: just off the street, in the middle of a vibrant neighborhood, was an L-shaped garden curling around the side of her house, so that from every window and through the screen door the view was close, fragrant, and green. I kept asking her to say the name of each plant, just so I could hear the extravagant words again. Kalanchoe. Bougainvillea. Ranunculus. Honeysuckle and jasmine perfumed the air like a grande dame, and riotous pink flowers climbed over head. Waxy, dark green succulents sat in orange clay pots along the brick walkway. I’m not one to talk about the energy of a physical place, but looking out her windows in the morning at all that lush growth, I felt something special there.

We went on a couple of hikes. The view was obscured by fog one day as we scrambled up a steep, narrow path my friend had never wanted to take alone. The way down was long and dusty, our sneakers slipping on the too-smooth surface. At one point I looked up from my shoes to see how much further we had to go. It was a long way and I groaned and cursed. Don’t look, my friend said. And then she said something meant as a practical piece of advice to keep me from skidding on my ass and knocking her down in the process, but which sounds really cheesy and instructive in this context. It was something along the lines of keeping my eyes on the next step.

We sat later in her garden with frozen pineapple vodka drinks (hello, California!), and  I thought again of that passage from Bird by Bird I had just excerpted recently on the blog:

E. L. Doctorow once said that “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard.

I have been exhausting myself with thinking lately. If I see another article about 10 ways to live your passion or 5 steps to embracing abundance, or if I make another list of what makes me feel most alive, or write a mission statement, or craft a 5-year plan, I might just pack it up. This happens sometimes. I’m comfortable in my inner world, but sometimes it starts to get a little claustrophobic in here. It is too plush and confined, with way too many thoughts and feelings not acted upon. It’s like a Victorian drawing room.

And so it is spring! What a perfect time to get out of thinking and into doing! Only not so much. An encouraging April horoscope had me frozen in my tracks. Wait, what new path am I supposed to be forging? I am (and you, too, Aries sisters!), apparently, unstoppable during our “cosmic birthday” April 10. But for what purpose? Circulate, put it out into the universe, make those dreams manifest! I can’t take the pressure. That, too, feels exhausting.

Here’s the thing: I’m not sure I can think myself out of every problem. Lists are helpful to a point, but I keep forgetting the two bits that come after brainstorming: surrendering (full stop here to really think about that one) and putting one foot in front of the other. I get stuck in a giant, swirling whirlpool of ideas and plots about how to scale the mountain ahead of me, when what I need to do is close the notebook, and feel my way. Put one foot in front of the other.

On Tuesday night, another friend told me about the Taoist concept of wu wei, which she described as the action of non-action. It’s not doing nothing like a purposeless layabout; it’s “the cultivation of a state of being in which our actions are quite effortlessly in alignment with the ebb and flow of the elemental cycles of the natural world. It is a kind of ‘going with the flow’ that is characterized by great ease and awake-ness, in which––without even trying––we’re able to respond perfectly to whatever situations arise.”

I think this concept is hard for a lot of us. We are goal-oriented doers, achievers, and list-makers. If I gave all that up, how would I get anywhere? Tara Brach’s recent podcast on self-compassion broke this same wall down in such a startling way, I couldn’t embrace the basic idea. What would it mean to be OK just as we are? What the hell would happen if we gave up all the busyness of improving ourselves and our lives? I mean, honestly: can you even imagine? I’m afraid that releasing a vise grip of what looks like control will plunge me into complacency. But complacency is a far cry from “effortless alignment” or “great ease and awake-ness.”

I don’t have answers, but I hope asking the questions counts for something. I do know that perhaps more than ever, this spring feels like an opening. Not to leading with intellectual force, but taking a cue from subtler models, like the neighborhood crocuses who had a false start in mild January and are back for good this time. We just have to hold out hope for how natural the process of blooming really is.

December 22, 2012

Fight Back with Normal Life

I awake each morning torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savor the world. ––E. B. White

My friend’s father, who is one part Santa Claus, one part Ron Swanson, has a saying for difficult times: fight back with normal life. When heartbreak hits or unconscionable violence and loss leave us breathless, we can find our way by embracing the small, tick-tock routines of a clockwork life. We jog by the river. We load the dishwasher. We tuck in hospitable corners. We may not feel like getting out of bed, but we do. We put one foot in front of the other down the hallway, the stairs, and all the way out the front door and through our day.

The only way through, I heard a meditation teacher say, in what may or may not have been a paraphrase of Robert Frost, is through.

In difficult times, our routines can anchor us so that instead of getting swept up in worry or tears or frets about the future, we can stay right here in the familiar––maybe even comforting––actions of the day at hand. We clear the table, we mail an insurance claim, we call our moms. We fight back with normal life.

I’ve been thinking of this saying since last Friday. And I’ve also been wanting to tell you about a new ritual I have with a coworker, inspired by something we heard on a Tara Brach podcast. Every day for the past two or three weeks, we’ve sent each other three specific things we are grateful for. Working by a bright window, today’s rain, a scone for breakfast. It served as a welcome relief when the day got stressful, but after a week or so, when novelty wore off and our enthusiasm waned, we nearly lost our new ritual to the forces of old habits. We forgot. And then one night, walking home down Sixth Avenue, I had to text to tell her: about the night air, so drizzly and unexpectedly mild, the hot bath I planned to have at home, the lights on our tree. She texted back right away about her anticipation of building a fire, a new handbag fit for a PanAm stewardess, and the winking pink flowers on a midday walk. We were back on track.

It turns out, as powerful as it is to be heard, hearing her daily bright spots was even better than sharing my own. It reminded me of my first job after college where I loved reliving with each customer who pushed through the door my favorite moment of the day: that first cup of coffee. And so it was with my friend. With each little detail she counted, my day got a little sweeter, and I could feel my eyes open wider: oh yes, that.

As the weather has turned colder in New York, I see more people sleeping in subway stations and wrapped in blankets on the street begging. I hate the feeling of walking by, in too much of a hurry to stop and help, but also not certain what the right thing to do is. Where is the balance between helping everyone and turning a blind eye? What do you do? I asked a friend. You can sit with people and talk, she suggested, or share food you might have. Her simplest idea struck me as the most powerful: just try to really see them.

There is a lot of bullshit in this world, just as there are horrors so unexpected and unexplainable they can make even the leader of our nation cry. Both can make us lose sight of what matters and of hope. But we can fight back with normal life. We can open our eyes and be sensitive to the experience of those around us. We can help. And we can have one moment of sweet, honest exchange about things that, no matter how mundane or seemingly trivial, imbue this briefest flash of life with meaning and beauty, with love and connection.

And I am grateful for that.

August 5, 2012

Sidewalk Books and Spontaneous Fun

Yesterday, a friend sent me a last minute invitation. Brave–which we’d talked about seeing since it opened–was playing in 20 minutes and did I want to go? It just so happened that at that moment I was stepping out of the doctor’s office only a handful of blocks from the theater. I most certainly did want to meet for a lunchtime movie. The midday sun was pounding the sidewalk hard; stepping into a cool, dark theater sounded like a welcome retreat. And we were both in the perfect mood for it: feeling sweet and sentimental, we were more than ready to get our cry on. We barely had to wait. The gorgeous short animated movie, La Luna, had our faces streaky before even meeting our redheaded heroine.

After the credits rolled, my friend and I cleaned up the signs of our sobfest and wandered into an eyeglass shop, into a small boutique to smell soaps and slim vials of perfume, and finally, right onto a shaded sidewalk cafe. A kir for her, a Leffe Blonde for me, and I wished desperately I were wearing a cool cotton dress instead of my hot sweaty jeans. But even the heat was kind of pleasant, the way it made us languorous and lingering, our faces shiny, and our glasses beaded with water, leaving rings on the green metal table. The heat, which I never fail to struggle with each summer, has something going for it: it slows things way down. I forgot to take a picture, which I think is a good sign. I was so in the moment, I forgot how much I’d like to remember it.

On the walk home, I passed a brownstone on Sixth Avenue with a cardboard box of books on the stoop. The Principles of Riding, Basic Spanish Grammar, Scenery for the Theater–nothing I would want, until I spotted a hardback copy of Coming into the Country. What luck!

I think there was something cosmically lovely going on this past week. So many people from different corners of my life reported good news: babies born, a deliriously good day for no reason, feeling that they were exactly where they ought to be, even if that spot was very far from where they’d imagined. The first of August felt especially fresh, a real new beginning. I, for one, needed it more than I knew.

And so I just had to share with you those good feelings: of fresh new starts, of the book in your Amazon wishlist appearing on the sidewalk, and the kind of fun that finds you.

February 14, 2012

On Style and Systems

I used to read (and never comment) on a blog by a woman in Boston who took a picture of her outfit everyday in her full-length mirror. I felt creepy about my silent spying, but I couldn’t stop. Her systems fascinated me. She always turned out one leg at the same 45-degree angle. She wore her pants in a flowy, work-trouser way with conservative twin sets. She knew a bunch of ways to tie a scarf. It was like In Style come to life. I didn’t really care for the way she dressed, but I admired her tirelessly methodical approach. Her goal was to create a capsule wardrobe of perfect basics, modeled on our ideal of what the so-chic French do. (She also shared what she ate everyday which also aimed to follow a French model: cream sauces, good pastries, strong coffee, small portions, no snacks. The occasional bag of Doritos worked there way in because, well, shit gets real.)

I am obsessed with systems in an almost I long to be a left-brained person way. Linear, pragmatic, solution-based, I’ve convinced myself that systems can be created to crack the code on looking chic everyday, cooking dinner, staying fit, saving money, and producing good creative work. According to this as yet untested theory of mine, the only difficult part should be finding your system.

I’m about halfway through creating my Style Statement. I am loving this book with its pages upon pages of questions for self-reflection: What’s your definition of sexy? Who embodies a sense of style that speaks to you? Where do you feel your best? The end goal of this book is to come up with a two word catch-all, not only for your wardrobe, but as guiding principles for all that you do in life. Your style statement should represent you at your most you.

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