Thinking Metaphysical

I’ve been thinking more than usual about the relationship between spirituality, poetry, and the body because of the workshop I’m taking at the Poetry Barn with Jenn Givhan, “Poetry as Altar: Creating Space for the Sacred.”

Since childhood, I’ve been asking myself questions about the nature of existence. I’ve always thought that if I just keep looking, searching, that the answers will come, that they are just around the corner.

Maybe it’s because of my upbringing in the Catholic Church.

Maybe it’s because my dad used to talk about Jesuit theology with me on our trips to the hardware store or the dump.

Now that I’m much older, nearing old age, I think I will not know the answers until I cross over into a spirit realm. That’s my hope, anyway, that there is a spirit realm or an astral plane.

I read a story about astronaut Edgar Mitchell who, when he saw Earth from space, experienced a deep knowing, a profound sense that infused him entirely, that he was in the midst of a limitless cosmic mind.

After his experience of seeing Earth from the surface of the moon, Mitchell created a center called The Institute of Noetic Science. On the website history they say, “As he watched the Earth float freely in the vastness of space, he became engulfed by a profound sense of universal connectedness.”

I’ve never had an epiphany like his, nor can I vouch for the scientific validity of the astronaut who experienced such bliss. But experience counts for something.

The realizations I’ve experienced have been fleeting ones that I need to practice again and again, moment by moment, through yoga, walking, writing, meditating, and even by teaching, reading, and discussing literature with friends and students.

Camino On My Mind

A few weeks ago I watched an interview between Oprah Winfrey and Shirley MacLaine on Super Soul Sunday. Speaking about her pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, MacLaine said something to the effect that, “The pilgrimage doesn’t truly begin until you’ve come home.”

My pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela began in May, 2015. I left San Jean Pied-de-Port, France on May 26 and arrived in Santiago June 28. During those 34 days of walking I meditated, wrote poems, met friends, cried, laughed, sang, ate good food, hobbled with shin splints, slept amid snoring pilgrims, and threw away the remaining antidepressants I carried across Spain.

Eight months have passed since I came home to Georgia, and I have been off antidepressants this entire time. It has been hard.

Since November, I wake in the morning with the fiery pain of nerves in my solar plexus. It takes an hour of  mindful breathing to slowly make my way out of bed at 8:00 am. Once I’m up, the rhythms of the day take over. The sun warms my muscles, the others in my family wake up, and the pain under my sternum dissipates.

Buddhist teachers would tell me that my suffering comes from expecting only good feelings. The trick is to watch the feelings come and go without identifying with them. But the pain! It’s sometimes impossible not to lose myself in the misery.

Some might wonder why I don’t go back to my psychopharmacologist for a new prescription. If I were suicidal, I would seek treatment, but I am not. I go to a counselor who helps me with moving the energy in my body. She also gives me suggestions for healing old wounds. I know that everyone is different, and I don’t recommend that anyone ditch their meds because of my experiences. I took antidepressants for twenty years.

I live with the hope that by entering the suffering I will eventually pass through it. I also practice what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “watering the seeds of joy.”

One to two hours of vigorous exercise works to exorcise my inner demons. I take long walks. I swim one to two miles at a stretch. I practice yoga. I’m grateful for the circumstances in my life that allow me the time I need to take care of myself.

Now that spring is around the corner here in Georgia, my thoughts are on the Camino again. I long for six hours of walking a day, no cell phones, computers, chores, or familial drama. It’s the kind of retreat I crave.

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After Yoga Writing Circle

Writing after practicing yoga and meditation is one of the best ways to release creativity. With a relaxed body and mind, we can touch our inner feelings. Writing with a group where we feel safe and nourished, we can take small risks with our writing and reveal heartfelt truths.

For the past six months or so, a group of us have been meeting once a month after our wonderful yoga teacher’s Saturday class to generate new writing. I’ve been leading the writing circle because of my certification with Amherst Writers and Artists, a writing circle method devised by Pat Schneider.

For the warm-up prompt, I read these lines from Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao Te Ching:

Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.
Keep sharpening the knife
and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people’s approval
and you will be their prisoner.

Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.

I wrote these lines based on the prompt:

Overflow

My heart is a bowl
that, today at least,
brims with anger.
Rage spills over the rim,
pulses into my chest, my throat.

But rather than opening my mouth,
I take to the street
and walk with my anger.
Inhaling the fresh fall air,
I release my bitterness.

The last yellow and orange leaves
hanging on the lowest branches
of a cottonwood tree
glitter in the breeze
like Tibetan prayer flags.

TreeCampus

What Living Out of a Backpack for 6 Weeks Has Taught Me

This past weekend S.A. and I drove to Florida to pack up his mother’s belongings and ship them to the assisted living apartment she moved to in Chicago.

She told us she wanted all of her clothes, but after stuffing a garment bag and five suitcases with all the items we could manage, many racks of evening gowns, dresses, skirts, blouses, wraps, bags, and shoes remained, so we made the decision to give her lifetime collection of finery to charity.

I hoisted her beautifully arranged outfits into industrial-sized garbage bags and with the help of one of my MIL’s neighbors,  drove them to a local thrift store that services the homeless and veterans. Other bags went to Goodwill, and others to Salvation Army.

I felt sad to see my MIL’s artfully selected skirts and blouses crammed into bags. Why didn’t she give some of this clothing away over the years? Now that she’s older, she stays  in her muumuu most of the day, and when she goes to the grocery she puts on the same sweater and frayed pants.

On the Camino, I had to pare down my belongings because of the weight. To keep my pack under 15 pounds, I had only one pair of spare shoes in addition to my boots, four shirts (two too many by the standards of micro-lightweight packers), one pair of thermal Smartwool leggings to wear as pajamas and as pants for the evening, three pairs of underwear, two sports bras, and four pairs of socks.

I will admit that when I walked around the streets of Pamplona, Burgos, and Leon in the evenings, cities that the Camino passes through, I felt somewhat oafish compared to the neatly dressed Spanish women out on the streets with their beaus or their families. But walking the Camino is a lesson in humility if nothing else. I had to let go of my vanity if I was going to make the distance to Santiago.

One of my Camino  friends, Carolina,  a lovely blonde  from Brazil, said that when she arrived in Santiago she would treat herself to a dress and some make up as a way to celebrate and restore her sense of beauty.

I ended up finding a nice summer dress on one of the main streets of the historic part of town  in Santiago, and it has become my main dress. I took it to the beach and to the mountains, I’ve worn it to almost every poetry reading I’ve attended this summer in Atlanta, and I might even bring it on my next pilgrimage–it’s lightweight,  dries quickly, and can be worn over my thermal leggings.

Decatur Book Festival, photo by Lisa N. Allender. I'm wearing my Camino dress bought in Santiago at the end of my pilgrimage.

Decatur Book Festival, photo by Lisa N. Allender. I’m wearing my Camino dress bought in Santiago at the end of my pilgrimage.

Before emptying out my MIL’s condo I had already begun the process of paring down my own belongings. I’ve had to face my proclivity to hoard books. I have them piled up next to my bed, stacked on shelves in every room, and even stored in boxes in the garage. I’ve donated many of them to Goodwill and other organizations, and I will bring others to the library.

But giving away or selling possessions is only a physical manifestation of other more important aspects of my life that I need to give away. Just as I let go of my vanity on the Camino, at least for the most part, now I’m working on letting go of fear and anxiety.

If I feel a vague twinge of negative energy, my tendency is to tell myself a story that gives me a concrete reason to worry. So these stories are what I’m going to let go. I’m letting go of fear. First I will give fear a gentle squeeze on the shoulder, then I will pat it on the back and wish it a safe journey. Goodbye, old friend, buen viaje.

With a lighter load, I go on my next walk.

The North Jetty on Casey Key, Nokomis, FL.

The North Jetty on Casey Key, Nokomis, FL.

How Can I Be at Peace when Fear Nibbles at My Heart Like a Mouse?

In Parker Palmer’s  column at  On Being,  he writes about allowing  his life’s unfolding  to be guided by open-ended questions that look at the big picture.

Here is an example question he gives at the end of the post, which he arrives at after some give and take with the wording:  “What do I want to let go of, and what do I want to give myself to?”

Questioning the universe and then listening for its wisdom seems like a gentle and good way to live a life. In yoga there is a similar practice of sankalpa, translated as an intention, a resolve, or a wish.

When I practice yoga nidra, a 45-minute relaxation meditation, at the beginning of the session I allow a sankalpa to manifest itself in my mind. Sometimes I have a clear image of myself realizing my wish. When I was preparing for my pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, I would see myself walking on an open road under a blue, blue sky, experiencing total freedom. And ultimately, at moments, this freedom is what I experienced.

When my son returned from India, he told me he learned that a yogi makes plans, sets an intention, and then lets the intention recede from his conscious mind. In other words, he doesn’t fret over the outcome. All his actions will lead toward the manifestation of his wishes.

I like the practice of posing a question and waiting for the stream of life to unfold. By allowing a question to guide us, our very lives become the answer.

My question is this: How can I feel more at peace in my heart and mind, and how can I share this peace of mind with others so that they too can experience peace?

In a way, the question is a mission statement for a life, but since it’s open ended, it doesn’t presuppose that we already know how to achieve the outcome or even what that outcome will look or feel like.

When I came home from Spain on June 30, I was not anxious at all, even after discontinuing all the medications I had been taking. Now, two and a half months later, some of the old anxieties are creeping back, and even though I continue walking, meditating, and reading inspiring books, it’s rare that I don’t feel the pain of some ancient grief bubbling up.

The difference now, after the Camino (A.C.!) , is that I don’t take any pills to muffle the gnawing, nibbling discomfort. As I learned from the gentle teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, I say to the anxiety, “Oh, hello old friend. What do you have to tell me today?”

My old friend anxiety says: Keep walking. Keep writing. Breathe deeply and slowly. Listen deeply. Be patient.

Chattahoochee River, Late Summer

Chattahoochee River, Late Summer

*** If you take medications, please don’t stop taking them because of what you read here. I’m not a professional therapist of any kind, and I only speak of my own experience. I have taken different anti-depressants for decades, and I think they might have helped me at one point or another. They certainly seemed to help. But I have the support of a therapist, my family,  and many years of life to help me face my inner demons, and I believe I am ready to do this one day at a time, breath by breath.

Today’s Walk

I’m sitting at the top of Monument Mountain, the place where Herman Melville met Nathanial Hawthorne for the first time.

It’s a hot day for the Berkshires. I’m sweating in the muggy air, but a slight breeze refreshes my skin. This humidity is nothing like the pizza oven heat of Georgia.

While going up the mountain I took a picture of a log bridge–I’m a little afraid of crossing narrow bridges, even when there’s nothing but a creek below. So I took a picture to illustrate the obstacles I’m forever confronting.

  
When I went to look for my phone to take another picture, this time of the rocky ascent to the summit, I realized I had left my phone at the log bridge.

So back down the mountain I went. A couple had seen my phone in the ground where it must have slipped out of my backpack (or what is more probable is that I missed the pocket completely, dropping the phone silently on the pine straw and moss covered path).

While climbing back up to where I am now, I thought I would maybe start leaving my smart phone behind when I go on these long walks. I usually put my phone in airplane mode, and I don’t check email, but I do use it to take pictures.  

So here I am on the summit, thinking about Herman Melville and typing into a WordPress app. I read that the day he came here with a gathering of local literary types, it rained, and he spent a good while describing to Nathaniel Hawthorne the intricacies of manning a whaling ship.

The trail here is well maintained. The granite and schist stones form a staircase that allows the hiker to reach the top fairly easily, but I doubt the rocks were arranged so artfully when Melville walked here. 

The air was the same, the flora and fauna the same, and some of the views. From where I am now, I can see Monument Mountain high school, where someone has written the name Maia in large white letters on the lawn in front of the school. Even from this height I can see the heart over the letter i in place of a dot. Someone loves Maia. 

To enter the nineteenth century imagination, I think I would have to abandon iPhone technology for a while. I don’t even know how Melville would have traveled from his Arrowhead farm in Pittsfield  to Monument Mountain in Great Barrington. Horse and wagon maybe? I know he liked to camp and was an avid outdoorsman. 

He became depressed after Moby Dick didn’t sell, and he turned to alcohol. This is a lesson in not tying one’s ego to one’s art. I don’t blame Melville–he had to support his family, and he had wanted to do so by writing. Art and business don’t mix. Robert Graves said something to the effect : “There’s no money in poetry, and no poetry in money.”

   
 

Traveler, There Is No Path

Today’s walk took me from Iron Ore Road in West Stockbridge to Lake Mahkenaac in Stockbridge, also known as the Stockbridge Bowl.

The plan was to swim across the lake once I got here, but lightning and rain rolled over the mountains, so now I’m huddled under a tree, waiting for SA to come get me in the car.

I had to walk along a highway to get here, not too busy with traffic, but the speed limit was 50 and there was no sidewalk. I tried to walk in the grass and face oncoming traffic whenever I could.

It was not a meditative walk due to the cars, but I did think about Antonio Machado’s poem, sometimes translated as “The Wayfairer,” other times as ” The Traveler.”

When I walk alone and set my own course, I sometimes feel lonely. My obstacles are at times tangible, like the cars on the road, but often the blockades are  mental. It’s a matter of summoning the motivation and finding the courage to make my own path, again and again.  

    
    
    
 

Today’s Walk

I’m in the Berkshire Mountains now, soaking up the fresh air. SA and I have taken his mother to her place here because she needs the help, and since I’m in this beautiful part of the world, I’m taking advantage of the country roads for some longish walks.

From West Stockbridge on Iron Ore Road I went up Cone Hill Road, turned right  on 41, and entered Richmond, about 6 miles.

Before leaving Iron Ore I walked around the neighborhood to see if anything had changed since I was here a year ago, but the same tidy houses with the same tidy lawns greeted me as I passed.

People here have lovely gardens of perennials–tiger lilies, Black-eyed Susans, sylvia, Queen Anne’s lace.

On highway 41 I picked up a menu at a barbecue place called Lakota, across the street from the Richmond fire station.

Crossing over the train tracks reminded me of a book I just finished called Bold Spirit, the story of Helga Estby and her daughter Clara and their walk in 1897 across the U.S.  from Spokane, WA to New York City. They walked most of the way along railroad tracks so they wouldn’t get lost.

They faced tremendous criticism for even going on such a walk because women were supposed to stay at home to raise their children. This was before women had the vote, and many men thought women were too weak to endure such an arduous trip.

Helga accepted the challenge to walk because the person who completed the journey would receive 10,000 dollars, money she would use to save the family homestead from bankruptcy.

I didn’t face one tenth of Helga’s hardships when I made my pilgrimage to Santiago, but traveling alone in Spain was not exactly easy. Women have to be on their guard while walking alone, even if we are no longer young.

On my way back to Katherine’s house I went along Furnace Road where former Governor Duval Patrick has built a home. He built on plot of land next to Mud Pond, an old quarry where we used to swim. Patrick bought up all the land around the quarry, so now there’s no access to it. Our sons would swing from a rope swing there along with many other locals. We would also swim out to a fallen tree floating in the center. It’s sad that now no one can swim in the cold, clean water just because one person wants privacy.


  
  
  

Keeping the Camino Alive

On a physical level, the best outcome of my pilgrimage is that after 22 years I have been able to go off anti-depressants. 

I don’t mean to judge anyone who takes SSRIs, not at all. We are all trying to figure out what our lives mean and how best to live.  

It wasn’t the Camino alone that helped me ween myself off them. I also had the help of a mind-body therapist who continues to offer suggestions for passing through anxiety and panic, the two main symptoms of the depression I have experienced off and on since childhood. 

If the medications work, then take them. But after more than two decades on various SSRIs, I had fluctuating blood pressure and strange head rushes that led to near fainting, symptoms that have now disappeared since I went off the medication. 

I attribute my peace of mind to the days and days of spending six to eight hours outdoors, walking and meditating. Even though the heat in Georgia can be unbearable, I continue to walk.

Each day is a new challenge in maintaining a balance of body, mind, and spirit. I’m tottering on a fragile tightrope of sanity, but walking and writing continue to be my medicine. 

   
    
    
    
   
Yesterday’s hike:

About 8 or 9 miles, from Burnt Hickory Road to Dallas Highway at Kennesaw Battlefield Park, then on to the visitor’s center and back to Burnt Hickory.

Creatures I noticed:

Dragonflies, ants, butterflies, various birds, including two giant vultures, a wee toad, about the size of my thumb pad, a chipmunk, many squirrels.

I stood still and listened to the cicadas in the trees and the grasshoppers in the tall grass. There was very little breeze, and the trees were still and silent, their leaves dry and weary from the heat. The noise from the highway and the passing trains at times overpowered the silence of the woods.  

It was a heavy, humid trek. I encouraged myself to keep walking by remembering the way I felt toward the end of my walks on the Camino–with sore feet and tired legs, I still managed to make it up those steep inclines. You can do this, I told myself. 

A Long Walk Might Be Like Drinking Ayahuasca

In a comment on a recent post, “Why Go on a Pilgrimage?, “  Elissa from Sometimes She Travels  writes: In fact, one piece of Camino graffiti from last year that I thought about every day this year was, “What are you doing? Why?” 

It has been 24 days since I returned from Spain, and I am still processing how the journey has changed me. Once we begin a pilgrimage, we never truly leave it. It’s a spiral, a labyrinth that continuously leads us closer to the center.

In some ways, going on a very long walk seems to resemble a shamanic healing. Most of us have heard about the Australian aborigines’ ritual of the Walkabout. There are also the stories of Jesus walking in the desert for 40 days, or the Coptic Saint Mary of Egypt, who wandered in the desert a for lifetime with the hopes of purging herself of her “sinful” nature.

A pilgrimage to heal from the emotional wounds of life has a different goal, one that resembles an extended  psychedelic trip. Maybe that’s how I see it, since I spent a long part of the journey in a self-induced poetic trance.

Although I’ve never experienced an ayahuasca ceremony, after reading Kira Salak’s “Perú: Hell and Back,” an account of how her five ayahuasca ceremonies in Perú changed her perspective, I can say my pilgrimage has had a similar outcome.

Speaking about coming out of a great darkness and entering the light, Salak writes:  Little suspecting that I’d emerge from it feeling as if a waterlogged wool coat had been removed from my shoulders—literally feeling the burden of depression lifted—and thinking that there must be something to this crazy shamanism after all.

Salak states that her first ayahuasca rituals helped heal the depression she had suffered since childhood, but that she continued to experience self-doubt and fear, so she went on a second journey for further healing.

Like Salak, I have experienced relief from depression, not after taking ayahuasca (which intrigues me but may or may not be my path), but after completing a 40-day walk to Santiago de Compostela.

Also similar to Salak, who repeated her journey to Perú,  I am considering another pilgrimage to Santiago in the future. When I know the medicine works, it’s tempting to take more of it, and I’d much rather rely on a very long walk than the SSRIs I took for decades that I now no longer need. Maybe I never needed them.