Writer’s Block and Missed Yoga Class Marathon

Yes, you read it right. My writer’s block has coincided with my inconsistent yoga practice. No, yoga is not about just going to classes. It’s about regular practice. BUT the rhythm of my week flows with my yoga class schedule and my energy is fed by the looking forward to going, joining, laughing, learning, and finally, the occasional coffee/tea session afterwards. Perhaps I have time to go to the barn and ride afterward.

Rhythm, pattern, balance. It’s all a physical, spiritual, psychological, and emotional ebb and flow. When one catalyst for joy is removed, the others may or may not falter. My mojo faltered when my schedule changed just briefly. No excuses, just observation. The world does change around us. Nothing should really be static anyway, but when joyfulness and lightness have such wonderful roots, I just don’t like pulling them up. I just don’t practice my mindful yoga well at first in the face of change.

The swing of things is becoming familiar again and the roots were really just neglected, not destroyed of course. Everything was waiting for me. There is always space for me in class. The horses are happy to be out in the field longer. I was able to remember why I appreciate the life I live by having to miss its best moments for awhile. I was able to miss blogging! It was never a burden, but the content needs to come from a real message waiting to be shared, not just a schedule so I don’t lose followers.

Stepping away is not removal if you don’t want it to be. It is allowing yourself the changes that feed your senses and emotions. If the change is uncomfortable, work on planting new seeds and growing in another direction. If it is just unfamiliar, embrace the unknown and learn from it. There is always a place for you upon return or a new path to follow when you arrive.

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Does Your Vacuum Need to be Vacuumed?

When I reached to remove the canister from my vacuum, so I could empty it, I realized that the machine itself was covered in dust. I mean, really. Do I have to clean the cleaner? Well, I do wash the wash cloths and clean and replace toothbrushes. There are just some things that you figure are exempt from the process. Truthfully, the state of the vacuum is representative of how dedicated I am to my overall cleaning. Now that I’ve realized my negligence, it gets a wipe down too. In fact, when it looks bright and shiny, I want to reach for it more willingly.

This, of course, made me think about what else I was cutting corners on. I’ve been very ill this week and was not able to ride the horse I have come to have access to or go to yoga at all. Often these both make me feel better but I’ve been that sick. My face feels bruised when I lean over. My eyes are swollen to the point that I’m afraid my son will be scared to look at me. These days of missing my practice have made my body feel worse than the illness’ influence, and my psyche is definitely more fragile. I even had a bad people day. Didn’t have the compassion for any of us and gave up even communicating with anyone casually.

Now, taking the time to heal slowly and safely is not the same as intentional corner cutting, but this lack of flow really made me think about how off kilter other things must be. First thing to meet the magnifying glass was my writing practice. I have been procrastinating so much. I have two gigs to work on, a book proposal, and this blog on the burner. My literary vacuum is getting dusty. We must keep our intellectual and imaginative machines shiny. Not like new—writing gets better with age—–but like a well-cared-for necessary tool. Perhaps I should reflect on the state of my yoga mat or my saddle. Both looked so nice freshly purchased, but I slipped around a lot on both of them before they were broken in properly. Regular use changes this. The saddle molds to my body. The mat supports my poses. They become uniquely mine. This should be the same for writing. I may struggle with anything new or difficult but must persist until my own form affects the framework and melds with it.

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.

The Text is Life

Perfection is an inaccurate term to use for a human being I believe. Maybe a state of purity or pureness? There is a positive force to embody in our lives regardless of the term we apply to it. As I continue to savor random moments alone with How Yoga Works by Geshe Michael Roach, I find myself kind of floating emotionally in a soft cocoon. My head hums a bit, my chest alternates between tightness and the most clear and weightless expanse of breath I can ever remember having. Realizations and fear, regrets and hope all ebb and flow around me. It’s like having a misty aura pulsing around me. Very spiritual. Very new. Very different from the reactions to the texts I usually read and write about.

A current passage that has insinuated itself into my thoughts contains references to the dilemma of pride. Pride is especially troublesome when it has installed itself within a student and the master or teacher must find a way to refocus it. One of the pending titles for my blogging is Teaching People How to Learn. I still may use it later on, but for the moment it serves as a better example of the trajectory of this post rather than a guide for an separate entry. As the narrator tells us, pride must be hit or beaten with a figurative stick until it becomes “a healthy kind of confidence” ( 135). One holds onto pride jealously but confidence is flexible. It can be shaken, it can be restored, and it does not begrudge change.

Confidence is what many of us lack when we endeavor to write. Pride is what stops us from learning. Those of us that have allowed rejection letters or the disinterest of influential people or difficulty with insecure bosses  to define our worth have allowed a perception to dominate our overall sense of ability and worth. That is not to say that there is a ceiling to learning and that writing is a static medium. The negative must be analyzed closely to find the realities within that collapse of hope or momentum.

This leads me back to teaching people how to learn. I have students who go into throws of anxiety and confrontation when they get a C rather than the expected A (Read: grade earned for simply producing the work). I see them as people with potential to evolve if I can assist them in realizing that earlier grades came at earlier periods in their education. Perhaps the standards were lower as well–let’s be frank about that. Many do not know how to evolve from the platform they have rested upon and refuse to find that there is more work ahead. Their pride is blocking the growth of their knowledge base. I am the wall they hit or the stick that beats the barriers down if I can.

What overcomes the obstacles? Reading of course. The text is life. Each text is a portal into a new perspective on life as it was or is if you see it for its potential rather than only its concrete form. How Yoga Works teaches us that things are not “themselves” or, rather, don’t have an unyielding unchangeable identity. Our engagement with the world creates or molds the nature of what we behold and that nature “itself” is not static. Roach offers us an example when the narrator engages her jailor in a discussion about a bamboo pen on his desk. Is it a pen? To him, yes, but is it only a pen? He comes to realize that it is also  a tiny piece of nourishment: “I mean that impression, that sense of division is so strong . . . I simply never realized that I make the pen itself ; my mind takes the pen a pen, just as the cow’s mind draws the same green stick as something good to eat” (118).

Now, I don’t  believe that our perceptions are an illusion or that people do not create texts, art, or even meals in an unconscious state that only others can give concrete form to as they engage with them. We are not passive vessels nor are our accomplishments eradicated by lack of witnesses or missing accolades. What this text brings to me and what I take from my interaction with it is that we can change our perception so that pain and discomfort do not concretely define an experience. If someone is cruel, the unhappiness is real, but the root cause of our pain may be suppressed or veiled by the surface actions. What is truly cruel in the moment?  The actions or the causes of these?

For a non-spiritual on non-philosophical example, think of the “kick the dog” syndrome. Someone is raked across the coals by his unhappy boss who is looking for someone to abuse because his wife made nasty comments that morning. The employee, feeling victimized and powerless, then spits profanity at someone who accidentally bumps his arm causing hot coffee to burn his hand. The person soundly abused for an honest mistake cuts someone off at a turn feeling the need to assert her authority and presence. The person who narrowly misses hitting that car comes home shaking and, as the dog trips him in his glee at finally having someone to play with, kicks the animal for also being in the way.

These examples and questions are not meant to confuse your sense of order or make you doubt your eyes or heart. Doubt is not the goal. Doubt is real at the moment you feel it, but it should not be a  manipulative tool for preventing the emergence of self-assertion. The key here is that self assertion must be based in awareness and tempered by acceptance of the changeable nature of what Roach calls “universal powers” and of perception.

The text I am reading is life. What you are reading is life. As it should be? As you agree? Does it matter? We are experiencing the opportunity to learn and grow from the nourishment that is found in the narrative.

Readers really do make the best writers. And maybe you’ll even figure somethings out along the way.

Long title right? Well, I could not decide. I recently read a book that inspired me in more than one way. It held wisdom that I had been long in need of. Say, all my life. It was also just a great read. On the great read side, How Yoga Works by Geshe Michael Roach and Christie McNally is quite accessible for any level practitioner of yoga or anyone trying to work on compassion at a realistic level of earthly conundrums.

One of my yoga instructors has read passages from this from time to time and the narrative itself was so beautifully written that it drew me in immediately. Of course, as I read the book for myself, the wisdom also came through so subtly that I felt less like a student and more like a fellow traveler. This is a tale of yogic practice and purpose presented through the experiences of a fictional female character who must live her practice and beliefs (the principles of the yoga sutras) as she is imprisoned in a small impoverished village in dire and unpredictable conditions.

Ok, so why is this important enough to blog about? Good writing is nothing to ignore in this world of mass publishing, Barnes and Noble bargain books, and well, blogs and Facebook posts. It is harder to be “heard” above the visual noise of so much sharing and sausage grinding across genres. As well, as a middle-aged woman who has had much hardship from day one (no violins, I’ve done well for myself considering), I’ve been assaulted with many axioms that were supposed to encourage me and make me feel included in the world. Nothing has stuck. Much of my misfortune has followed upon the heals of happiness or optimism.

When I was a child, I used to think that an evil spirit was watching me. Keeping track of my hopes and attempts to survive with happiness in tact. At the moment of openness, terrible loss or consequence swept in to annihilate all chances of success. Or that is how I saw it. I did not have the fortitude to take the challenge and fight. Perhaps it was the volume and rapacity of the evil and misfortune. Regardless, once I became an adult, the superstition gave way to pessimism. Simply the knowledge that the good did not last as long as the bad or unexpected negatives became the basis for acerbic asides and knitted eyebrows. I’ve got the lines on my face to prove it and the reputation for real New Yorker one liners. Woody Allen might even be concerned for me.

I still would prefer to be happy. Hence the yoga classes, the desire for a challenge without competition or judgement. So, the book being rather poetic and full of kindness (read it to understand it) drew me in. I had my doubts about finishing it with any long-term inspiration in tow, but I was overwhelmed by a brief passage that addressed entirely my life-long confusion about acceptance and optimism followed by pain. Have you seen Bridget Jone’s Diary? Remember when she alludes to the idea that once something in your life is perfect, something else falls “spectacularly to pieces” (attempted quote–not sure of the exact wording). That sort of rang true but only as an irony, not an insight.

Now, in How Yoga Works, the exact relationship of good to evil or positive to negative is fully addressed and accepted as a universal truth. One that is not to be surrendered to, but understood and prepared for: “When Important things are about to happen, bigger problems come to try and stop them. This is a law of yoga and a law of the powers that run our lives” (40).

Maybe not news to you, but news to me in terms of universal truths rather than bum luck in a jinxed life! So, read and read, and read. One day, maybe later, maybe sooner, what you read will directly affect what you write and how your write it and how you understand why you write at all.

As another of my yoga instructors often says, things will come to you when you are ready to receive them or when they are ready for you.

One of my favorite authors, the late Penelope Fitzgerald, did not start writing until she was 58. And she was from a prestigious family of writers. It just was not in her or for her until she was ready. So as far as I see it, “it” is only just ready for me and I, it.