In the Midst of Confusion

You should see the sunset behind the mountains here in Asheville, NC.  The mountain ridge’s silhouette is framed by a deep red and orange sinking sun and a deep purple burst of clouds fan out and stretch upward to touch a gray blue sky with even grayer clouds floating above.  It’s beauty is not lost on me this evening as we move into the winter solstice:  the darkest time of year.

I live on top of a small hill on the second floor of an apartment complex.  The tulip poplars’ limbs reach upward and I can see eye level with their small branches that have ridges and grooves where leaves will sprout out in the spring.  These trees act as a fence and along with the pine trees and mighty oaks and regal maples they keep the soil intact so we don’t slide down onto the busy street below.

Fifteen minutes have passed since writing the first words, and the sun has disappeared behind the mountains.  It is pitch black, save the streetlights in the parking lot below.  The solstice is upon us and like the black bears here in the area, it is time to go inside and hibernate.  Except, I am already indoors nursing a mild cold that creeped up on me yesterday evening.  Metaphor then calls for me to know the next step of going inside:  to drop into my heart center and seek the mystery that has been calling me for awhile now.

Truthfully, I never fully understood why I came out here this past summer.  I told my friends and family it was just a breakaway from my old life and a chance to explore and do something new and different before I got too stuck in my ways.  On the surface, it was really that.  So, I put all of my attention and energy there and explored the city and met interesting people.

I also had grandiose ideas of starting my freelance writing career and making money by writing copy and profiles for businesses and small organizations.  I did that for awhile and I put all of my attention and energy there.  It was exhausting and not as rewarding as I thought it would be.  And, I wasn’t making any money.  That was Ok if I could drum up the business, but I was in a new town, a new environment, and without a lot of chances to network nor had I enough experience yet to even charge for my services.  I also had to admit that I was putting on a good show for myself and my friends and family as a way to prove that I would drum up business and support myself financially and one day this would become my means of support.  I see now that I was trying to put on airs to make this move, this leap, not appear so scary to me or others.  A way to justify my need to be accepted as a mainstream, career writer with a solid vocation that fit into society.

Then, I heard a voice tell me that it is inevitable that I should become a published writer since I am a former English teacher.  So, I put all of my attention and energy there.  And, that felt better, yet it was still exhausting and I realized I was going on a path where my ego was getting the better of me and telling me I was worthless as a writer if I didn’t publish anything any time soon.  I went to writer’s workshops and writer’s circles, and even joined a critique group.  And, I failed and I fell.  Hard.  (See last blog post about a  piece of fiction I workshopped before it was worth showing to anyone.)  I was expecting my transformation as a writer to happen over night because it is what I want.  In September, I had written one of the most beautiful pieces of my life and now it sits in online queues at numerous literary journals.  There is one rejection letter already in my email folder.  I tell myself that it’s all Ok because it’s the name of the game.

img_3153After a little soul searching, and laying my persona of an English teacher and an academic to rest, I returned to my first love of drawing.  I started a doodle of a sugar maple leaf and it turned into something that lit me up inside.  Here, tucked inside the leaf, were images of butterfly wings, pine bark, rocks from a creek bed, elderberries, and mountain ash berries and so many more things from my daily nature walks.  “Maybe, just maybe, I can consider myself an artist?” I thought to myself.  In a classic self-loathing fashion, however, I berated myself and told myself that I was a fraud on all creative levels because I never went to school for art and I spent most of my writing time in a classroom reading teenager’s essays and re-reading and discussing pieces of literature and poetry from textbooks.

I didn’t give up on drawing, however, and saw it as a new form of meditation that could replace my daily journal writing, which was becoming cumbersome, melodramatic and morose.  And so I went about my days drawing, working at Trader Joe’s, teaching yoga, and going on nature walks when I had the time and energy.

All seemed well and good at this point.  My easy-going lifestyle was nice when I was in the flow and enjoying my creative pursuits simply for pleasure and a release of years of pent up creativity that had no time or outlet to come forth.  But, life happened to me.  I began to get scared about why I was here in Asheville.  I worried again about living on a mix of a low income from the grocery store and my stored up savings account.  I began brainstorming of ways to fast track my creative pursuits and think of how I could develop them quickly and prove to myself and others that I wasn’t wasting my time here.  And worse, I began thinking of how to make my creativity the center of a new vocation or career based on the shaky skills I had pulled out from years of hiding deep inside of my psyche.

The universe brought to me an opportunity to teach a yoga and journaling workshop on overcoming and transforming fear.  I was (and still am) excited about it.  I even met with a doctor who has been practicing yoga and meditation for 30 years.  He overheard me talking about my workshop to a couple I know at Trader Joe’s.  To make a long story short, we met and he wants me to teach at his practice and also wants to introduce me to some friends of his that run a retreat center in the area.  So I thought to myself, “Aha!  This is what I’m supposed to do!  I can combine my love of teaching and yoga with my skills on how to write and I can make a living from this down the line.”  I abandoned my drawing and poured myself into my research and practiced breathing techniques and wrote lesson plans like I used to do when I was an English teacher.

I started to become confused.  Which path of creativity should I take in order to make a new life for myself?  Is this what I’m supposed to be doing with my life while I’m here?  How long am I going to be here in Asheville?  Will I stay forever or will I return to the Midwest or will I move somewhere else and do something else?  Will I run out of money before I accomplish anything in this world worth doing?  Am I on the right track?  Am I happy?  Where has my passion and my spirituality and deep connection to my heart and to the earth gone?  Why am I not feeling anything?  Why do I feel like I am off course?  What the hell am I doing here?  What the hell are we all doing here?  And down and down and down the rabbit hole I went.

I slipped into a mild depression without realizing it.   It didn’t help anything that I had suffered a very bad haircut.  A mop of hair with two different dye-jobs and  silver-white chunks sitting precariously on top of my head.  Zits popped up and a few pounds stuck to my cheeks (on both ends) from the treats at work.  Even my apartment appeared cluttered and small.  I piled up dishes in the sink and pulled out clean ones from the dishwasher. A tumbleweed of loose hair (mine and my pets’) drifted across the bathroom floor as I walked in and brushed my teeth the other day.  I shut off the sink and the lights when I finished and simply walked away.  Too tired to pick up a tiny mess.

A few days ago, I experienced the throws of angst in my body 2 hours before I went to work.  I was sweating.  My breathing was shallow.  I was jittery and couldn’t sit still.  My mind jumped around to all the “what ifs” and projected worries and difficulties that could and would happen.  I had the same exact feelings and thoughts I used to have before I walked into the hallways of Belleville West high school where I used to teach.  Trader Joe’s is a simple, albeit very physical, job.  There is no stress or pressure to it (although, there is some drama and some very real frustrations of dealing with a few of the arrogant young men that work there…I’ll save all of that for a later post).  Fortunately, I have an arsenal of resources and techniques I’ve cultivated over the years (ones that I will share at my workshop), and I tamed and curbed my anxiety and understood it for what it was:  an old biological and psychological pattern that is from my past and is revealing itself in my present.  The only control I have over it is to not let it be a part of my future.

My body wasn’t done with me just yet, however.  Yesterday was a full day of practicing and teaching yoga, meeting with a spiritual teacher for personal and workshop reasons, working on a writing project for him, all the while neglecting housework and life’s necessary drudgeries.  I sat down on my couch for a few minutes before getting ready to meet with a friend for a bluegrass concert, and my body took over.  I felt heavy and achy.  My eyes watered and a dry cough started in my throat.  I tried to fall asleep on my couch, but my dog barked at every single noise my upstairs neighbors and their wild dogs made.  I forced back tears and got up, showered, and went to my friend’s house and later the concert.  The food we ate was delicious and the band was amazing.  That perked me up until they took a break and I realized I needed a mental, emotional, and physical break as well.

I didn’t go to work today.  I knew it was time to purge myself of this cold and these negative thoughts.  To awaken my body again to its resiliency and awaken my spirit as well.  I took it easy this a.m. and when I had enough energy, I cleaned my apartment in a mindful way.  I threw out or donated what was no longer serving me.  In my spare bedroom closet, I came across a stack of my old journals with beautiful ideas and words in them.  I smiled and a memory of my 10-year-old self came back when I realized I loved words and wrote poetry about soaring eagles or about the soft glow of the streetlight as I walked our family dog, Oscar.  I also found a stack of drawings and doodles I did on my free time when I had a career.  They’re not too bad and they show that I do have an innate sense of perspective, color, and design and a creative and unique approach to my subject matter.

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More importantly, I know how I felt channeling the words and the images through my mind.  My hands.  My heart.  I know that mythical time is there to support me and this linear time of moving about my day and earning money does not always have to be 100% in alignment with that.  Times like the winter solstice can help us go inward and empty out all that is dead and not working for us.  We can open up space and shine a light inside our hearts as a way to nurture what is to grow next. We cannot force its growth.  It must germinate and emerge from the depths of our souls on its own time.  Just like Persephone’s return from the Underworld.  Her mother’s sadness of losing her daughter is the world’s gain in the future when Persephone walks the earth with her mother again for a short while.

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When I found these drawings, I almost wanted to say “Fuck off” to my old self who had locked my mind, body, and spirit into a very unhealthy way of being where I consumed myself with martyrdom, angst, worry, and an authoritarian mentality inside a world confined to a small classroom inside a brick building.   But I brought compassion to that old part of me that is still somewhat wired in my brain and my body and comes out in awkward moments like I mentioned.  What I do know is that inside me all along has been the writer, the artist, the communicator, the teacher who can express the tenderness and beauty of the subtle and mysterious world.  Who can tell stories and myths and weave them into a yoga class or a blog post.  Who can help guide people through their own personal journey that is riddled with fear and grief.  Who knows the way to creating a body-mind-heart connection, even if it is for a brief moment.  Who is not a fraud, but a growing being with human skin and bones.  Imperfect but authentic in her pursuit of something bigger and more meaningful and helpful to humanity that only her blip of a moment on this planet can provide.

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The Sunday Dreads

The Sunday Dreads.  I can’t shake them.  I’ve been suffering from them probably since I was in the 2nd grade and realized that school was there to stay.  I would have succumb to the teacher’s and my parents’s will and do classwork and homework.  I would have to overcome my shyness and learn to get along with kids on the playground.  I would have to pay attention to the teacher as she or he asked me to recite my alphabet or write down my spelling words or carry the 1 in arithmetic.  Little did I know I would make school my career nor that I would be battling this chronic malady well into my mid-30s.

The only way to deal with eliminating The Sunday Dreads is by doing my homework.
The only way to deal with eliminating The Sunday Dreads is by doing my homework.

What are the symptoms of The Sunday Dreads you ask?  I’m sure they vary for everyone depending on what job you do Monday-Friday.  I’m a high school English teacher, and so I suffer from the following symptoms (in no particular order):

  • a constant resentment that you have to go to work on Monday and that your weekend is soon to come to an end.
  • a nervous stomach that gurgles and sputters whenever you think about and begin all the work you have to do to prepare yourself for work on Monday (this pertains a lot to teachers).
  • a tightness in your chest and shallow breathing as the late afternoon and early evening set in.
  • anxiety over the amount of grading you have to do, but really don’t want to (again, this symptom is specific to teachers).
  • cracked lips from biting them or licking them because of your dry mouth (caused by “anxiety” or “nervous stomach” symptom).
  • a slight fear that you have to stand up in front of people and teach them to correct their mistakes or how to become better people (for supervisors, managers, teachers, or self-motivation speakers).
  • a ringing in your ears which is the far off buzz of the hum-drum work schedule you’re soon going to have to follow.
  • a clenched jaw that pops and cracks whenever you open it.
  • insomnia, interrupted sleep, or nightmares due to your over-anticipation of the day that is rushing to your doorstep too quickly.

How to treat The Sunday Dreads?

  • Get up early in the morning, drink a cup of coffee, read a book and watch CBS Sunday morning while sitting in your comfy chair.
  • Take a walk or 2 or 3.
  • Take a nap (if the insomnia, interrupted sleep or nightmares have not begun).
  • Eat.
  • Go shopping.
  • Watch a TV show on your DVR or rent a movie.
  • Pretend that you don’t have to go to work and that you’ve won the Lottery and plan a virtual vacation.
  • Or just do your homework and deal with it.

Obviously I have self-diagnosed and treat my condition as my figurative albatross that I have chosen to live with since I’ve chosen to be an English teacher.  I simply can’t seem to shake my routine that has been in place since I was 8 years old.  The Dreads were never present the rest of the week.  It didn’t matter if my school day  was great and I got an ‘A’ on any given assignment, or if I got beat up by the neighborhood bully and would have to face her every day at the bus stop, I would come home, eat my after-school snack, watch 3-2-1- Contact, Sesame StreetBugs Bunny, The Flintstones and then go outside and play before I had to do whatever little homework I was given for the night.

Things remained somewhat the same in junior high school, but the bullies were now mean girls and puberty was rampant.  My Sunday Dreads occasionally spilled over into Monday, Tuesday, and sometimes Wednesday, but were gone before the weekend came.  Then, when I got my braces off in high school, my concern over my looks and my perpetual gauge on where I ranked on the popularity scale blended into a whole other form of anxiety that looked similar to the Sunday Dreads symptoms.  Still, I knew there was an end in sight because I was accepted into my university of choice and that would take away all of my school anxieties for good because I would be “free” (whatever that meant).

No one told me about the Saturday Drunks I would experience in college that fueled an ever heightened case of the Sunday Dreads, especially when finals were looming.  Then, once I got my teaching job, I thought everything would settle down and I would feel normal and less anxious once I had been teaching for awhile.  Once I was “in the groove” and had all of my classes, lessons, activities, worksheets, PowerPoints in order and all of my #2 pencils sharpened and sitting on my nicely organized desk.  Now, 15 years in “the biz” and I’m still anticipating that ideal which will be my “cure-all” for these Sunday Dreads.

Until then, I guess I have to do my homework and take a few antacids.

Homework is just so boring.
Homework is just so boring.
Stick a fork in me.  I'm done.  I've succumbed to the Sunday Dreads.
Stick a fork in me. I’m done. I’ve succumbed to the Sunday Dreads.