Are You a Magnolia or a Milkweed?

Last spring, my yoga instructor, Allison Levine, was talking about the glorious blooms on the Magnolia tree outside her window. While the other trees and plants were taking their time waking up, this tree was already in the throws of spring exultation. This observation led to discussions of our own identities and inclinations. After a while we were trying to figure out what plant represented a different rhythm in the cycle of growth.  A mid-to-end-of-season species, Milkweed popped into my head. Now, it is not a fall plant like many crops, but it is a late summer bloom and one that brings fresh sweetness to the thick air of late July and August.

Some writers are Magnolias. They have these intense bursts of energy and crank out work speedily.  Others ruminate for periods of time and gradually produce their blossoms. I am definitely a Milkweed. I like the gradual progression of time to bring me into focus (or bloom). If I burst onto the scene ahead of the rest, I feel exposed and awkward. Perhaps I’m not a trend setter or a mover and shaker so much as a thoughtful observer. I’m my own breed (or species) but not a follower for certain. It’s important to identify which one you are so that no writing guides, blogs (ahem), or courses influence you to put your writing habits on the wrong timeline. However, I do recommend setting some kind of  goal and timeline. Otherwise you become like Camus’ character, Joseph Grand, in The Plague who perpetually rewrites the opening line of his novel, and never progresses beyond. This is not just a lack of deadline pressure for him, but a lack of connection to what he wants to express. Still, procrastination tends to reflect a lack of direction.  But what timeline and what goal you wish to meet needs to be something you know inside feels right. Your goals should fit like a soft pair of slippers that you look forward to settling in to. Some may think they are homely and need changing, while others like their coziness and envy your ability to relax into them.

Returning to the Magnolia/Milkweed analogy, I was just finishing Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Overall I like his work and I do think that his output has a nice rhythm, Not too much too fast, but we are not left waiting interminable months or years before he resurfaces. I think he is a Milkweed. I may be wrong. But even his voice caresses and his reading of his works smoothly flows forward without dynamic intensity. It is subtle and powerful. Just like the blooms and the fragrance of the Milkweed. I recently thought of him  when my friend’s 6 year old very primly informed me of the substantial size of her family’s flat screen TV. She was suffering through watching my standard television that I see no need to replace as long as it still does its job. She helpfully suggested that I give mine to someone so I could have a nice TV like hers. In that moment,  I realized that I am also disturbed by large flat screens in the home. It’s the void they represent. Think about it. You have a large black hole on your wall or on a cabinet. A large black nothing sitting passively but expectantly for you to activate it, much like the “varmints” in Gaiman’s book, tearing bits of the world away so that there is nothing but a kind of old fashioned TV static where life used to be. These large black square holes are much like the emptiness that these creatures, the hunger birds, inflict on the world until someone stops them. Do I want to eradicate a large space in my room? Absorb light instead of welcome it?

Not sure how all of the above connects together and to my theme of mind/body/spirit and the writing life? Teaching and learning? Well, my understanding of the many objects that surround and influence us and our relationship to them has matured as I continue to follow the path of awareness that regular reading and listening opens before me. Lacking the ability to truly observe and understand the inanimate world we create around us prevents our ability to describe and communicate it without images. Without the mindful community of yoga practitioners sharing their observations and inspirations with me, these thoughts would not have been initiated nor would they have taken root. It is not ourselves alone that bring forth our work. It is engagement with the world that fertilizes our imaginations and allows our ideas to germinate and grow into the particular plant, bush, or tree that is our writing selves. We cannot even become a Magnolia or a Milkweed without the entire process, the changing of the seasons and the insect and animal life  shall we say, that enables the entity to grow at all, much less healthily and to fulfill its role in a larger cycle. Random discussion among a discourse community, reading a talented and enigmatic author’s work, listening to a child’s reasoning, sitting with a seemingly irrational or unfounded discomfort with an appliance, writing and experimenting with your work and output—these all create a kind of compost to fertilize your talent and instigate growth patterns.

I am a Milkweed. I would not change this if I were offered the opportunity. I like the pom pom balls of blooms.  A gathering rather than a single bud. The memory of the beautiful spring Lilac’s scent is resurrected in late summer by this plant allowing the admirer to participate in two seasons at once.  I like the Monarch butterflies that rely on me (my students and readers) and enhance the setting with their fluttering contributions. I am ubiquitous. I reside in a world of small clusters of writers and practitioners rather than towering alone. Most importantly, I like to see the seeds of my work spread tangibly out into the world. I rely on the impetus of the wind to assist me (translation: openness to the universe’s rhythms). Be a Magnolia proudly if that is your style. Be the harbinger of beauty and renewed life and be exciting and bold. But don’t ignore the simple Milkweed in your literary horticulture. Look forward to its arrival.

Yes, pain is inevitable

Of course, many of you know the follow up statement: Suffering is optional. I was reminded of this when I was reading Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach. It’s not reaching me as well as How Yoga Works, but it is a valid and meaningful read just the same. In this case, I’m talking about emotional pain, psychological pain. This is mostly because I relate my posts to my career in editing and writing and teaching. Outside of potential carpel tunnel syndrome, I don’t have much in the way of physical pain to relate to my job. Ok, I get a pain in my head when I read some of my students’ work but that is another story. No matter how good I am at my work or even just proficient, I always relate the outcomes to my self worth. Ouch. Can we all really do the job perfectly all the time? Can’t life get in the way? Can’t the perspective of what is good and what is not be subjective to a degree? Yes, right? So why insert pain into the mix?

In my work, tangible results are the measurement of my worth. What I think of it is not relevant to the paycheck or continued success. What I write must not need much editing if it is to be considered good. My editing should enhance the written page. The majority of my college students should be able to meet the basic learning outcomes when they leave my classroom. Sometimes, though, I’m not up to snuff. My writing may not be as dynamic as I’d like. But isn’t that what an editor can take on?

As an editor, I can answer, yes. There is a difference between sloppy or weak work and good stuff that needs some tweaking sometimes. Needing support is not a failing. As an editor, I can be very judgmental, but I do my best not to antagonize the writer. He/she might be having a bad week. It’s my job to find out what makes him/her tick and keep the clock going. Finally, as a professor, I can’t guarantee that the whole class will get what I’m teaching, but I should be able to know I did my best to be clear and  consistent with them.

How do these connect to mindfulness and pain-free living? If Yoga teachers were judged on concrete outcomes, they’d all be in trouble. Which of us can say we never regress in our practice? Who can say why some days we cannot keep our balance or pose as well as others. In some cases, we know what affects us. Just one glass of wine affects my energy in my morning practice. But did I screw up by drinking it? No, I just learn to know my body better by remaining mindful–aware.

I really like feeling comfortable with being human, mistakes and all. Pain should bring insight, not a sense of futility.

Have You Lost Your Chaturanga?

I have, at the moment. Some days I am so focused or mindful that I can lower myself smoothly down and hover for a moment before moving on to cobra. But other days, I can’t do it. I just have to do knees-chest-chin as if I’ve never had the strength or the practice. That happens in life as well. Just when you think you are at least at a certain level of practice or ability, something comes along that lets you know that you still have more to learn or that you are not on the path you thought you were.

I recently had a tantalizing job lead that at once elated me and troubled me. The opening was in the publishing industry and I had about 85% of the requirements down solid.  One area, budgeting, I had no experience with and I have not been actively working in online formatting. I am still print-based in my employment. Well, it’s not that I did not know that online publishing is a major force in the industry, but I’ve been kept busy with print—and teaching, and tutoring, and, and, and. But now, even with all of my experience in this field, I am no longer strong. I’ve lost my publishing chaturanga.

Do I stay at knees-chest-chin and hope the groove comes back or do I allow the good days to flow and show the bad days some compassion? I’m not a stay put kind of person by nature. I am easily frustrated though and that often gets in my way. But I’ll practice mindfulness and compassion and let the publishing world do without me for some time while I take some classes to get myself current in the online medium. That wasn’t the only gig out there. Yoga? I remember how smoothly the poses have come when I did not fight them or worry about them. But I do need to keep up with my practice and learn more so I can give myself the room to grow.

Don’t let yourself lose your chaturanga. You may misplace it for a little while, but know it is there waiting for your mind and body to come back to the mindful path.