Before and after the thunderstorm

IMG_25July16RainBlue walls, red curtains, and gold-framed mirrors that reflect who is up on stage behind the microphone. Clothes damp, shoes soaked, a number of us had gathered to hear the Bennington Writers fiction reading at Cornelia Street Cafe while a thunderstorm raged over New York City.

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When the storm hit earlier in the day, I watched the sky cast charcoal gray from my perch on the eighth floor at the Center for Fiction. I headed out onto the Midtown streets joining the herd of commuters rushing to get underground before the clouds broke open again. I passed a man selling umbrella’s for five dollars and didn’t listen to the voice that said, “buy an umbrella, you may need it.”

At a West 4th street subway exit, slowed down by a line of people reluctant to go out into the torrential rain, I looked for another way out but this was it. As I made my way to the front of the line, a man played a lively guitar that matched the mood.

With ten minutes left to the reading, I surfaced risking a good soak but I found my way to scaffolding and eventually an umbrella as my partner showed up just in time.

During the event, I went first and read an excerpt from my short story, “Exposed.” At a transition in the story, as if on cue, thunder boomed, lightning crackled—I paused to let the storm have its space. Then I continued on reading a flashback about crossed wires and mixed messages.

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After the reading, the sun broke through the clouds. Buildings lit up in a warm, orange glow. We walked a stretch along Bleeker street on to the next destination for the evening.

What did the storm signify? Was it meant to be foreboding and fearsome? In my experiences, rain has often been a blessing. Rain has arrived on days filled with happiness like the day I got married.

The storm last night provided a measure of contrast, a way to be present in the experience of the evening rather than getting caught up in the flow of traffic, pre-event tensions, or tangential thinking. It was a much needed cooling down. It took nervous energy and turned it into awe and a bit of glee.

Contrast

Dream like an octopus

IMGneptuneVirginiaBeachInky the octopus may have dreamed about escaping his tank before he slipped through a six-inch-wide drain about four months ago at the New Zealand National Aquarium. He not only had the ability to squish his football-sized-body through the drain but could also likely open jars, solve puzzles, and apparently got bored.

When I first read about Inky’s escape, I realized how little I know about the Earth’s sea creatures and invertebrates like the octopus. I wondered if Inky had planned his escape. How did he know the ocean was at the end of that drainage pipe? Could he make a distinction between the experience of being in an enclosed secure tank versus the vast, open and dangerous ocean?

I read several articles that stated octopuses have memory and can recall humans as well as respond to their name being called like a dog or cat. A feature written for Discover magazine describes octopuses as mollusks with complex brains that have tactile memory centers. They are also said to sleep.

In the article, a biologist observed, “that octopuses, ordinarily hypervigilant, may sleep deeply. Their eyes glaze over, their breathing turns slow and shallow, they don’t respond to light taps…”

Known for deception and being savvy hunters, an octopus like Inky could have very well been devising strategy in his dreams.

We should all be more like Inky; flexible and ready to jump at the opportunity to go beyond our constraints and explore the unknown.
Dream

Enter stillness to practice listening

IMGtreesBerkshires2On a stretch of highway near Great Barrington, MA, I was called to stop at a dirt road framed by trees (pictured above). On one side a cemetery hid in the shade and on the other a green, grassy lawn stretched into the sunlight. The road felt majestic like the trees were tall knights guarding a secret passage. And the road’s existence itself felt hidden, especially to me as someone who wasn’t from the area but rather enjoying an extended stay one hot July.

Very few people traveled the road. It was quiet. Surrounded by these tall, beautiful trees I felt an invitation to be still, to listen.

When I look at images from my time on this small stretch of road, I’m reminded of one of my favorite poems by David Wagoner, Lost, from Collected Poems 1956-1976, Indiana University Press.

It begins,

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.

Reading the poem alone brings a sense of stillness and calm but above that it captures the knowingness of the trees and what exists in the space of the present moment. 

Read the entire poem on the Writer’s Almanac site.

Pensive

Beauty at the beach in Jersey City

Jersey City Winter Beach

Winter scene at Jersey City’s waterfront facing downtown Manhattan.

During most winters, I live at the edge of resistance, fighting against the cold and doing my best to stay out of it but a walk to the Jersey City waterfront quickly nullifies any need to do battle. The sun glimmers off of the Hudson River and the crisp, cool air brings the New York city skyline into sharper focus. Breathing in the afternoon’s surrounding stillness, I let go and relax into what is.

In that space between the breaths, between the paragraphs, between the distracting, grumbling, “complaining about winter” thoughts, I find openness and acceptance. I’m free to move on and just be.

Why don’t we allow ourselves to just be? Why don’t we give ourselves permission to stay in the present moment and to open up to whatever exists in front of us? Perhaps we are inclined to get carried away with our memories or our to-do lists or resistance or rejection of something or someone because of the uncertainty that exists in that moment of “now.”

Meditation is one way that I’ve become more comfortable dropping in to that present moment. Using the breath as a guide, I’m able to see what’s going on. I’m able to appreciate the beauty of winter’s beach.

In her book, “How to Meditate,” Pema Chodron says, “There is incredible wisdom to this open, present space. We are opening to the wild display of surprising richness, the organic and unique display of the present moment. We aren’t trying, trying, trying. We aren’t controlling or attempting and efforting our way through it.”

So instead of trying to escape winter, trying to stay warm, trying to make summer happen now, I am in the practice of opening up to the wild richness of its current display. That it is here to stay as long as it wants to. That there is nothing I can do to change that.

Allow space to create

Rustic Writers' Retreat Hike

A cow stands guard at a clearing in the woods in Mount Vernon, New Jersey.

I noticed the cow standing guard at a clearing in the woods. He had wandered into the forest and watched as we trekked to an area of moss-covered rocks. It was sometime after 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning. I had led a group on a hike during a recent Jersey City Writers rustic retreat in Mount Vernon, New Jersey. About 11 of us were staying in a farmhouse for a weekend writing immersion.

Could we be as diligent and disciplined with our writing as the cows were with their grass chewing and grazing? Could we return to the same field day after day? What these cows had was incredible amounts of space to go about their work and that’s what we were attempting to create for ourselves. But creating space to write requires more than just showing up to a retreat, your chair, laptop, or notebook for that matter. Landing in a scenic, quiet setting doesn’t instantly bring words to the page.

You have to allow for the space that comes from just being. You have to let go of all the distractions that keep your mind cluttered and allow for that clearing in the woods to manifest inside. I found that the moments I spent hiking through the woods, observing the night sky, or just listening and watching the cows as they pretended to be busy were just as valuable to creating space as sitting down in front of a blank screen.

Exploring the stillness of winter

Winter wonderland

Snowy stillness.

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Crystal patchwork.

This winter hasn’t left much desire for urban hikes between the freezing temperatures and icy winds, however, on a few evening strolls I marveled at the stillness that had settled over my little neighborhood. I thought I was stuck in the polar vortex, my mind filled with thoughts about how much I loathe the cold, the layers, and most of all, the lack of sun. Despite the internal grumbling, I couldn’t help but notice the trees. Majestic with their snow-laden branches, they had taken on a new form. Their shared winter nakedness had given way to a shimmering, crystal patchwork. A tree that had nearly been stripped of all of its beautiful branches during Hurricane Sandy, really came to life adorned by a frosty, tendril-like headdress.

When I stopped to admire the beauty surrounding me, my grumbling thoughts stopped. That’s when I noticed the stillness. It was as if all of the nighttime noise had been swept up into the depths of the branches. It was as if the trees had offered to bear the weight of all of our misery and misfortune.

As we travel through the edge of this season, I’ll leave behind the grumbling winter-worn thoughts, but I’ll miss the serenity, the quiet, and the stillness of the snow-filled streets.
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