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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Asheville Time

I clock in to my job at Trader Joe’s and I begin my training by shadowing a seasoned worker for the entire 8 hour shift.  I have learned much in 7 days.   I stock product on the shelf and I talk to customers and help them find items.  I barely know the products we sell and I rarely know where they are located.  I figure it out anyway and I get lots of help from my very cool and friendly co-workers.  Last night, I learned how to use the cardboard baler (a task that if done improperly could maim you) and I loaded up the cookie and snack aisles for about 4 hours non-stop.  I worked second shift last week.  This week, I will work the early morning shifts and learn how to run the cash register and all the detailed tasks that go along with this particular job.

I have been spending my shifts with predominantly men and listen to them announce their “bro love” in words that consist of “dude,” “fuck,” “asshole,” and other creative cursing phrases that are said in jest. This is genuine locker room talk that has no malice or perversion to it whatsoever.  They punch each other in the arm, steal the box cutters off each other’s hip holsters, or give each other high fives in passing.  One morning, I came in at 6:30 to help stock shelves before the mandatory store meeting at 7.  A guy next to me, who is a profound meditator and wears mala beads and talks about listening to Tibetan singing bowls as he does his chores around his house, dropped a head of lettuce on the floor and got upset with himself.  His friend nearby picked it up for him and then twisted his nipple and cajoled him before moving on to his task.  My work mate laughed and said, “Thanks, dude.  Sometimes I can be such a vagina-whacker.”  I laughed and he noticed me and blushed.  He apologized profusely and I told him we were cool.  “Aw, dude, thanks,” he said and then asked me about my yoga practice and gave me tips on how to better my meditation practice.

All the guys now call me “dude,” and they have started pulling out my box cutter from my hip holster, giving me high fives in passing, and cursing like sailors in front of me.  Towards the end of the night, one trainer and I stocked wine bottles and talked like hillbillies as we searched for the “pea-nut no-ear” and “Shar-don-ay.”  Another guy nearby took down his man bun and started metal thrasing in the middle of the aisle to the rockin’ 80s tune blaring from the speakers.  Heavy metal hair guy later gave me two rules I should follow while working here:  1.) Put Things On The Shelf (P.T.O.T.S.) and 2.) Don’t be a “dick.”  Easy enough.   It is a sweet relief and a welcomed initiation into the realm of happy, good natured male energy.  I am working my body and my mind is at rest.  I can relax and know that as long as I work hard and am nice to customers and my co-workers, I don’t have anything else to worry about.

I had coffee with my friend Randi the other day and we walked past Trader Joe’s to the coffee shop nearby.  I saw two of my coworkers cross the street and my heart swelled.   Their Hawaiian-themed colorful tshirts marked them as members of my new tribe.  There went my new friends who sang their work tasks in the middle of the aisle and smiled at me and laughed when I made a really clever joke.  There was the young woman who talked books and “deep shit” conversations with me in the break room.  Inside that space were managers and crew members probably dancing to the grooves of Chaka Khan and rapping as they sliced open boxes of brown organic rice or singing to Huey Lewis and the News and making up new lyrics as they walked a customer to the frozen food aisle.

These men and women are artists, writers, musicians with mad skills and creative advice.  I have also cultivated friendships with some strong, beautiful women outside of Trader Joe’s who are published authors and teach in either the yoga studio, or local colleges and universities as well.

It has been a blessing to not have to come home and worry about grading papers or writing lesson plans.  I don’t have to solve people’s problems and I don’t have to handle bad behavior or manage up to 30 teenagers (and sometimes their parents and the administrators and random students in the hallway) every hour, every day, five days a week.  The “Sunday Dreads” that used to fill me with anxiety of the upcoming week are beginning to fade away from my consciousness.  I am in the process of divorcing myself from my old self in which I had married myself to my job and my duties and sense of profound responsibility and mentorship.

I am working on releasing myself from old baggage and bondage and stuck-in-the-groove recordings of negative thoughts I use to tell myself about who I believe I am.  I am shifting away from identifying as a former high school English teacher and I am giving myself permission to tell people I am a writer.

The pace of living here is much slower and laid back than I am used to.  About three weeks ago, my friend Alex and I drove up Lonesome Mountain Road.  It is about twenty minutes away from here and is filled with twists and two tight hairpin turns.  We were going to have dinner with my former neighbor, Darby, and his buddy Leigh.  Leigh built a treehouse on the edge of a trout pond and Darby is living there while he searches for land and a home to buy.  The treehouse is a compilation of dreamed up ideas and ecologically sound ideals, and it is riddled with piles of used lumber, old tools, and a compost toilet nearby (i.e., a “poop in the woods” hole in the ground that is covered behind a tattered tarp).  We arrived an hour later than planned and Darby was still grilling the meat and sweet potatoes and yams.  Leigh asked for us to gather around for an offering before the evening began.  He passed around a roach clip with his best marijuana rolled tightly into a joint.  Darby and I stepped out as everyone else partook in the ritual.

img_2734I walked down the edge of the gravel road and admired the beauty of the place.  Here before me were wildflowers and marigolds rich in abundance and color.  No streetlights were around and the setting sun was beginning to dip below the tree line.   My dog raced with someone else’s golden retriever.  Both became muddy and exhausted on their foray around the property.  Leigh, Beth, Ron, and Barbara all walked down to the pond to harvest water lettuce and other vegetables and greens from Leigh’s garden.  Darby bustled around the tiny space.  He lit the stove’s pilot light and cursed when the flames shot up and wrapped around the cast iron skillet.  He popped back outside to check on the grill while the others were still moseying around the pond, ogling all the wild things in their presence.

I asked where the bathroom was.  Darby pointed to the tent about 50 feet away from the treehouse.  I knew this was the “compost toilet” he had mentioned.  I shook my head and started that way.  Darby has complained numerous times that he can’t bring himself to poop in the woods like a bear.  Although this pooper and makeshift shower has a compostable filtration tube that you have to aim into before it is washed away by the underground water system and filtered through the rocks and sand, Darby says it feels more natural to him to poop in a bag and dispose of it when he goes into town every couple of days.  “It seems more civilized that way,” he told us when the topic got brought up again for the third time that evening.  I hated to tell the man that he was one step away from adult diapers so I marched myself out into the woods, away from the contraption to let myself flow freely with nature.img_2742

When I came back inside, Darby was griping about Leigh’s lack of initiative and unwillingness to thank him for all the work he’s done.  He went on about how he cleans up the place, cooks them breakfast and dinner every day while Leigh smokes another joint.  Once their morning routine and bickering is over, they go outside and work on constructing another out building across from the tree house.  Leigh walked in on Darby’s tirade and smiled at his best friend.  Darby put his arm around him and said, “We bitch at each other, but at the end of the day we just fuckin’ bang it out, don’t we man?”   Leigh shook his head, his curly white locks shaking in front of him.  He patted Darby on the back and sauntered over to the table.  He turned up the Bob Marley song on his computer and shoved a cracker and slice of cheese in his mouth.  All was right with their world.

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Later in the evening, Leigh had us gather around the campfire outside and he did a “two minute” ceremony where he mumbled out his gratitude for all of us being in his home.  His buddy Ron scratched underneath his chin, shaking his white beard that was tied up into a braid.  Ron replied, “Yeah, thanks, man for having us out here.”  We all said our thanks in this ritual while Darby hustled around and offered us our meal of either BBQ chicken or venison and sauteed greens from Leigh’s garden.  We finished the evening with an apple cobbler I made and talked about art and writing.

When we left, my friend pointed up to the night sky.  We stood near my car and looked upward.  The Milky Way was twinkling above us in shimmering dots of yellow and swirls of purple and pink.   I’ve never witnessed anything like it in my life.  The doorway to an infinite realm stretched out above us.  Below was the dirt and the grass and us.  All these elements and more from those stars.

Days and weeks have passed by me at a snail’s pace.  Yet, I also exist in a swirl of creativity and waves of emotion.  I feel more connected to this land and this city now that I am developing a routine and meeting more people.  I still struggle with opening up to that same creativity and emotional surge that is brimming under the surface.  My head tries to work out the logistics of my new lifestyle.  It worries daily about money, bills, connections, schedules, friends and family, and any other scheme or strategy it can lock onto as a way to keep me safe and keep me small.   I try to dance the dance between creative freedom and expression and living practically and sensibly.  I still have this belief that I must accomplish some type of creative project and become successful with it in order to prove to myself and others that I made the right decision to come out here.  I also struggle with this imaginary time line where I believe that I must choose a definitive date to end my sabbatical and have something to show for it before I go back to a “normal life” and a “normal routine”.

My heart, on the other hand, is swelling with emotions and longing to be expressed.

I struggle so much with this desire to be purely creative.    Thankfully, an eight hour shift of putting things on the shelf, bagging groceries, and being nice to people erase all fears and doubts for the day.  After work, I was free to go with a small group of friends to Max Patch bald an hour away.  We hiked up to the Appalachian Trail pass and witnessed a 360 degree view of the mountains and the gradual changing of the leaf colors.  My dog ran in and around us.  We sat in the grass and looked upon the swelling moon that was just beginning its tour of the horizon.  The sun was to our backs and warmed us as the mountain breeze blew over us.  All of us sat in silence, alone with our thoughts.  

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I laid back in the grass and let out a sigh.  These mountains have called me and I have heeded their call.  It is not up to me to work out and carve out a “normal life” that brings me money, success, recognition, or a comfortable pension.  I am to be worked on by the grandmotherly love and ancient energy and medicine of these mountains.  All  those who live in this area or visit here have said the exact same thing.  These mountains heal and offer up gifts to those who are willing to receive.

I rested my head on the tufts of grass behind me and could still see the soft curves of the mountains.  My friend asked me what I was thinking.  I said to him, “I’ve never let myself do anything like this before.”  I honestly don’t know what I meant by those words.  It was the best I could come to expressing that I was healing my old wounds and letting the cool breeze, the mountain landscape, and the pure clean air erase all traces of self-doubt.    Two tears dripped down the sides of my face and landed in the dirt.  I closed my eyes just as my dog jumped over me.  The mountains were working their magic on me.

This is Asheville time.  There is no rhyme or reason or linear way of being.  It is as near to mythical time as I can get.  I must yield and open up to these gifts.  They will come out in their own time and in their own way.

In the meantime, maybe I’ll put on my Chaco sandals and buy a Subaru (the official car of these mountains).  Then I’ll be able to drive to town in style and meet Darby for a cup of coffee after his daily dump.