Saturday, June 26, 2010

Callings

"I have spent my days stringing and unstringing my instrument while the song I came to sing remains unsung."
                                                              Rabindranath Tagore


I just finished a book that blew me away both for its insights and for the author’s crazy-beautiful way with the English language.  The title of Gregg Levoy’s book alone was enough to make it jump off the bookshelf into my book bag:  Callings:  Finding and Following an Authentic Life.

Levoy uses the term “callings” to refer not only to the more obvious concepts of our right work or the job we are meant to do, but also to anything that we are guided to, whether it be to become a more compassionate person, to let go of an old grievance, to live a life of service, to mend a relationship with a family member, to change our life in some way that puts it in alignment with our true selves. 

Finding our way to that authentic life is not typically a trip down a linear path but most often a windy road.  First of all,  says the author, “If we only want to feast on the big ideas and the grand schemes and are unwilling to give our time and energies to seemingly small and limited tasks, to the thousands of baby steps needed to carry off our high concepts, then we will make little headway.”  Second, this transformation takes its own sweet time, and while we can help by being open, we can’t force it.  “We do much damage by not being patient with our own evolution, which by design and necessity luxuriates in an abundance of time and plot twists…We try to make things happen, hoping that in doing so we don’t inadvertently open the darkroom door while fate is developing our pictures,” says Levoy.  Speaking of our eagerness to get to the destination, the solution, the end point of our quest, while rushing to get through the searching and preparation and uncertainty, he says, “We love the answers and suffer the questions.  We worship the flower and ignore the soil.”

On the other hand, he cautions that taking small risks can go too far, though, that “At some point, we have to leap.”  As he quotes British statesman David Lloyd George, “You cannot cross a chasm in two small jumps.”

“If responsibility is the ability to respond, when we do not respond to our calls, we put them in the position of having to come after us…” The author gently reminds us that life will, not so gently, remind us if we ignore our inner voice, or the voice of Spirit, or whatever you want to call it. Our bodies will act out, for example, as “The calls we will not name or follow coalesce into entities that will attempt to tunnel their way into consciousness using any rough tool at hand to remind us of their imperatives, and they will do so through the impeccable logic of pain.”  

But we humans have all kinds of ways to avoid change and to avoid pain, so we’ll keep trying those, too, as long as we can. “Procrastination and resistance can be part of the path, part of what helps plunge us into a predicament that can serve to awaken us.  In other words, there may be a certain rightness to our chariots swinging so low.”  

One of the things I love about Callings is that, like me, Levoy has a fine appreciation for gray areas, for the dance of yin and yang, for the necessity of living with paradox.   The pursuit of or answering of callings is fraught with steps forward and steps back, with desires to move forward quickly with the need to move more slowly, with simultaneous faith and uncertainty.  If the time is not right for the big change, he ventures, “Sometimes hanging in there or exercising creativity within the status quo, is the better part of valor…Motion is not necessarily progress any more than noise is necessarily music.”

Along the way to following our authentic lives, we will be visited by synchronicities that we would be wise to examine, and almost inevitably by adversity as well. “Be willing to approach obstacles as if they might be allies, and make your leaps of faith accordingly,” Levoy urges.  “They are setbacks that set us up for ultimately life-enhancing lessons: course corrections, insights, a better grip on our strengths and weaknesses, even valuable delays.”  Mistakes and pratfalls are not to be mourned in our journey but to be learned from, and crises and uncertainty bring their own gifts.  “We must therefore be willing to get shaken up, to submit ourselves to the dark blossoming of chaos, in order to reap the blessings of growth.”  I love the quote Levoy shares on this subject, from Charles C. West:  “We turn to God for help when our foundations are shaking, only to learn that it is God who is shaking them.” 

Dreams are one way life directs us, though not everyone welcomes their messages.  “For people cemented to the rational and scientific, the linear and observable, the ego and the five senses, opening to dreams can be like suddenly realizing that your bathroom mirror is actually two-way.”  But he holds fast to his claim that dreams are very real, and warns that the peril of not believing so is real, too: “If we don’t obey our dreams, we’ll dream them until we do, or the unconscious mind will ‘dream up’ other channels for their messages to come through, such as symptoms, neuroses, and compulsions.”  I think this is true of our waking dreams as well, actually, having experienced and observed in others close to me the terrors our body and mind can exact upon us if we are not living our lives in alignment with our higher selves.  

Wake-up calls will occur in many guises, from catastrophic events in the world to our own smaller orbits.  “We’re drop-kicked into consciousness, even if only temporarily, and we either use the experience to reorient us and recognize the call in the calamity, or we attempt to drive ourselves deeper into the status quo, the old equilibrium, and thereby miss the point entirely,” says Levoy. ”Thank goodness for such a mechanism, although gratitude is not generally our first response.”

Since we will be moved if we are to be free, why not open ourselves to the inexorable movement to the inevitable change?   Otherwise, as Levoy puts it so compellingly, “Eventually, our feelings of inauthenticity and restlessness, our envy of others’ successes, our panic at the passage of time and our own reflections in the mirror, all become like tombstones—they remind us of where someone is buried—and we will measure our fear of death by the distance between our desires and our actions, between the life we want and the life we have.”

At the core of it all, isn’t it best to act and think from the words he quotes from actress Naomi Newman:  “[S]ince there’s fear and suffering in life whether or not we take on adventures, whether or not we follow our callings, we might as well suffer in the service of our dreams.” 

For me the most beautiful conclusion is Levoy’s, that “I am no closer to feeling secure in the world for having lots of answers. Making peace with the questions seems a better bet.”

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Dream Girl

I’ve always thought the best invention ever would be some sort of video recorder turned inward that would record our dreams and we could then replay them awake like movies.  Endless entertainment, right?  
Whether happy or foreboding, my dreams are always vivid, in glorious Technicolor, cast of thousands, complex plots.  In last night’s “show” I was heading for a huge field for a yoga class, and the sunlit path was full of gorgeous flowers.  I commented to the woman I was walking with that while they were all beautiful, I could leave the orangey ones but had to pick a few of the vivid pink ones after class.  I turned to someone else as we lay on the ground to begin yoga and said in awe, “The grass has never been this soft!”   I still remember its lush green and amazing thick softness.  This all seemed very profound when I woke up, and I grasped for the meaning, but maybe it was just a happy dream about a soft landing after leaving some stressful weeks behind me in the “real world.”

In his book Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life, Gregg Levoy says, “Dreams are a force to be reckoned with, so it’s no wonder people sleep through them.”  There are a lot of dreams they say everyone has.  Like the ones where you’re walking around naked or topless in public, distressed to be caught this way, but no one is even noticing. Then there are the endless permutations on the “can’t find your way” theme.  That plays itself out in two ways in my recurring dreams.  One is that I’m a college student wandering around campus and don’t have a copy of my class schedule and can’t find out where to get one, or find myself at the end of a semester still not knowing what books I was supposed to have read and about to be caught at final exam time and fail.  The other is that I’m in a house with endless rooms I keep discovering, and I’m so excited, I  know there’s a special room or wing or floor I’m trying to get to, but I just can’t find the right hallway or staircase.  These are easy and endless fodder for amateur analysis.

When I was younger, the dreams I remembered were often recurring nightmares.  One—again a universal one, I’ve heard—was that I was a small orb being chased around and around by a larger one, threatening to crush me.  I think what I was experiencing, waking screaming some nights, almost unable to make the transition back to wakefulness, were what are now called “night terrors,” but back then were just called “why Mom & Dad were half asleep at work the next day.”  In my teens and 20s I don’t remember remembering my dreams, probably because my conscious days and nights were so much fun they beat out the subconscious competition.  Then in my 30s were dreams not well remembered due to sleep not well gotten (a time called early motherhood).   Later dreams became a way to process daytime unpleasantness, whether it was conflicts at work or the disillusion of my marriage, very often variations on a theme, repeating themselves like hammers knocking me over the head till I figured things out or got closure. 

I know sometimes I act out valiant struggles in my dreams.  I know I sometimes take my anger or fear to bed with me, and of course how can they help but turn up in my dreams.  People from my past, the good, the bad and the ugly, make guest appearances.  As themselves, as far as I know, but heck, maybe as vegetables or chickens.  The occasional lover, or perhaps “the one who got away,” comes for a tantalizing visit but the passion is almost never consummated. (Kind of like how they say when you fall off a cliff in a dream you’ll always wake up before you crash.)

Perhaps my favorite whacky dream of late was one where my mother (82 in the dream and in real life, mind you) lived in a tree house.  She seemed permanently stationed in a sort of study, many hundreds of feet up a huge tree, where she sat at a writing desk enjoying the view of the woods and woodland creatures.  This, however, was not the weird part of the dream.  No, the weird part was that in order to reach her, I had to pass through a hole in the tree, a foot or two around, that was filled with mashed bananas.  My therapist and I will no doubt be working on this one for years to come.

So, dear readers, what’s turning up in your sleep these days?  Please use the Comment function below to tell all! 

Saturday, June 5, 2010

One More Time



After my wise and thoughtful meditation on life upon my son’s commencement last blog post, what you would be getting next if I didn’t feel so exposed would be a great blubbery piece I began writing last week with the words, “I am bereft.”  I’ll spare you that one. 

Instead I will tell you, I am a great big mess.  

My body is acting out in every way it knows how—digestive, skin, allergies, arthritis, everything. 
I am crying at the drop of a hat—the LOST finale; a Pete, Paul & Mary folkie reunion concert on PBS, pictures of oil-laden birds in the Gulf (though no one should able to stop tears at that), the kindness of a neighbor, a stranger who lets me merge into traffic... it doesn’t matter, I’m leaking salty tears so fast I should be stopping to hydrate.

I’m trying not to globalize but, geez.  On top of all these maladies, I went to the beach for a couple of days for the first time in years and the night before I left, water came pouring down from the upstairs shower into my dining room. Ka-ching!  I walked back into the house trying to hold onto my vacation Zen, folly because on one of the hottest days of the year my A/C was broken.  Ka-ching! My car went in for a few hours of work at less than $200 and three days, several frenzied price comparison calls, 2 cab rides and one beat-up loaner car later, capped with fending off an additional couple hundred in unauthorized charges later, got my car back with my wallet $750 lighter.  I’ve had a mini-wasp invasion in my living room and zapped them with an eco-friendly spray I had picked up, but then I was breathing in an overwhelming stench of peppermint oil.   Days later that had barely lifted before I was back in peppermint purgatory from zapping my achy back with Biofreeze.

 My therapist has been gently guiding our conversations, or more accurately my litany of woes, back to the question, “Do you think Sammy’s graduation might be affecting you more than you realized?” 

I know this too shall pass.  I got through the summer four years ago when Sammy’s high school graduation converged with my turning 50, and I’ll get through this one, too.  Though I won’t , at least today, think too hard about how much excitement and growth and travel and fun he has met with in those years versus how very static and stuck my own life has felt.

Oh my god, now PBS has a 90-year-old Pete Seeger leading an auditorium full of people in singing “Amazing Grace”—they’re killin’ me!  

My horoscope in the Post a few days ago said “Your life could be a country music lyric.  It’s almost funny. It’s a credit to you to find the humor here. Just make sure it’s not a paralyzing humor.  There are people rooting for you, after all.  You’re already coming out of it.”

Am I?

(Imagine this with the appropriate twang)


 “I’m so proud of my son,
Got a BA this year,
His accolades ringing around in my ears.
Internships, foreign travel, his life all ahead
Who could tell that his mother can hardly get out of bed?

I’m so proud of my son,
My darling my dear,
Why am I suddenly so full of fear?

I'm so proud of my son, I’m so proud of my son,
But what’s next for this mama
Now that that work is done?

I’m so proud of my son,
But what’s next for me?
Damn another midlife crisis is steamrolling me!”
  
Thank you ladies and gentlemen, I’ll be here all week…