saturday (ritual, reprised)

I started writing about ritual last week, but the word that stuck in my mind from that post all week was ‘hungry’. The word would sort of weave in and out of various conversations that I had with different people, linking itself frequently to the word ‘crave’. Sometimes those thoughts or conversations would have to do with actual food cravings, but a few of them talked about a deeper craving for other non-food items, like quiet moments for walking or reading or sitting still in a warm tub.

When I first heard of Mary Oliver’s death, it seemed so surreal because I had just been thinking and talking about her with a friend. We were talking about the ritual of running / walking / hiking outdoors, and how much we crave more of that time when January rolls around. I’ve tried in the past to convert myself to indoor running when the season dictates it, but it never sticks. I thought it was merely a lack of willpower or drive or focus – an inability to move my thoughts beyond the endless, uninspiring 1/11th of a mile loop of track in the gym, or the even duller loop of a treadmill band. But I’m actually pretty good at putting my shoulder into the repetitive or the mundane, getting into my head and out of my body, and pushing through without wimping out.

The conversation helped me highlight a shared love for the act of getting outside in a physical way that opens my brainspace in a completely different way. And it made me wonder if I really love running, or if running is just the vehicle that gives me permission to carve out a slender sliver of time between this important thing and that necessary thing, and stretch it into a new shape that requires so little of me other than my attention and measured breath. Like that time a few years back, when I entered a running store to purchase new shoes, and I insisted that I “wasn’t a runner” before explaining my habits and preferences and she said “but you are a runner”, and so I decided to believe her.

Because if I am a runner, then I must run. I must look at each week and find three or four slivers of time in there, and mark them. I must remember my socks, and an extra apple for fuel. I must balance on the tops of my shoes in a bathroom stall somewhere and change out of my work clothes and into my running uniform. I must tie both shoes because I am a runner, and then I’ll retie one of them on a bench outside the restrooms because it’s tighter or looser than the other. I will drop my things off at my car and I will need to stretch but I’m impatient, and so I’ll just walk briskly for a minute or two, away from the parking lot and the sidewalks and into the trees. I will tell myself that I’ll ease into that first mile at a slower pace and then I’ll ignore that completely because the sun is low in the sky, and there’s a nice breeze, and the daffodils are starting to bloom, and the crunch of the gravel underfoot is like a jolt of power straight into my veins, and I may not look like much of anything to anyone around me, but I know all my own secrets (or most of them), and one is that I’m a runner. Not because I’m fast or strong or coordinated or determined. Only that I’ve crafted a series of rituals that say it is so.

I have long said that running is a form of prayer for me, and I always precede that or follow it with the disclaimer that I don’t know how to pray. But I can speak to gratitude, and it expresses itself in many different places, and most clearly and succinctly as I run. So the idea (and conversation ) about Mary Oliver was (is) that perhaps she is the reason I am a runner. Because I was hungry for movement and skies and borrowed time between the person I give to my work and the person I give to the community and the person I give to my family. Because I was hungry for an outlet for the jumble in my head and my heart, and it could toss and turn and spit itself out in a dozen different forms – not all of them attractive or helpful – or I could push it out in even exhalations of gratitude, a tumble of words coated in the white dust of a running trail and the salt streaks of sweat.

I remember listening to Krista Tippet interviewing Mary Oliver while I was running through the Kennedy Forest area of Forest Park one afternoon, where you come out of the trees higher than the road below, and the prairie flowers are tall and thick and yellow and bee filled, and these lines cut me into two:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day.

The words of her poems tell me directly or indirectly to pay attention, and I do. Creating ritual around these slender slivers of time is an act of paying attention, to myself, and to the world.

A few favorites I carry with me on my runs:

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Wild Geese
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

saturday (ritual)

Once I got rolling on this, I could sense that it was going to be LONG, so I’ve decided to break it into at least two parts for now.

ritual: an act or series of acts regularly repeated in a set precise manner

A few times over the course of the past year when I’ve mentioned the word ‘ritual’ it always generates comments or follow up emails from friends asking me to write some more on this subject. It’s something that I kept promising to do, but never seemed to get around to it, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot in the meantime.

It’s one of those seeds that was planted several years ago, as I was working through a lot of different issues, and thinking about stretching goals for myself. If I’m being honest with myself, the idea probably surfaced as we were mired in grief and (what felt to me like) extreme inactivity and indecisiveness. I

It was hard for me to name that during that period, but it became crystal clear as the fog started to lift again. I set two really big stretch goals for myself in that next year. The first was to immediately set up and follow through with an evaluation of my feet issues and schedule surgery and rehabilitation as soon as possible. It was a terrifying proposition to me, but I just forged ahead anyway. It was an incredibly painful surgery, and left me almost completely dependent on others for all driving and daily chores for 8+ weeks, and then I had several months of physical therapy that followed.

The second stretch was equally daunting. I decided to not only move forward with my licensing exams, but to commit to completing all seven of them in just a few months. I outlined this plan in my mind during the weeks I was confined to a chair or my bed post-surgery, and I made it happen by crafting specific rituals for each test. I scheduled the first three at two-week intervals, took a six-week hiatus to travel to Mexico, celebrate M, E, and F’s late summer birthdays, and get everyone back to school in August. Then I scheduled the remaining four every two weeks – allowing one three week exception for the notoriously tough one.

I made this work by doing a few key things: I set aside the time I needed, established clear expectations (for myself and of others), and didn’t permit myself to make changes based on fear or panic. I knew there was the real possibility that I might not pass one or more of the tests, but I also knew that I couldn’t assign blame to the timeframe for that. I know I am capable of giving my absolute best effort in a specific (even aggressive) timeframe. I was just joking this week in a meeting that I think one of my strongest gifts is the ability to stretch time as I need it, when I need it. The ritual of my holiday card making demonstrates this to me each year. There’s that word again – ritual. What could I learn from that and apply to my physical recovery and my tests?

I scheduled each test on a Monday. After completing each test, I drove to the same Starbucks down the street, ordered the same green drink (no longer on the menu, but luckily it stuck it out through my testing period), and spent the rest of the afternoon on a rare treat – like picking up a new book or shopping for a swimsuit for our trip. On Monday evening I boxed up all of the materials for that test, and went to bed early. On Tuesday I did nothing. On Wednesday evening I pulled the next materials out and got to work for ten days, then started all over again with the next one.

I learned a whole lot of things that year, exam material aside. In a household that splits domestic chores pretty evenly on all counts, it meant almost an entire year of doing very little cooking, cleaning, laundry, etc. I spent the first half with my feet up (by doctor’s orders) and the second half with my tush in a chair (by my own orders). It felt crappy at the start, but it was good practice for the end. There were a lot of things I wasn’t doing at 100%, but there were a few things I was killing it on, and those buoyed me for future challenges.

I came out of that year HUNGRY. (Maybe that should have been my word for that following January!)

Over the next few years I began to articulate just what it was that I was hungry for, and I used the practice of creating rituals around those things so that they were both fulfilling and non-negotiable. I know that (physical) muscle memory is a thing, but I think it also can apply to the creating or breaking of habits. Ritual creates that muscle memory which then transforms desire into practice.

The most obvious first answer to what I was hungry for was food. I was grateful that my family kept me fed during that year when I couldn’t do it myself, but I was ready to eat more and better, and to really stretch myself in that area. I got serious about menu planning, and I created rituals around the act of thinking about food week by week.Those rituals included a specific set of pre-printed note pads that live on the side of our fridge, a small stack of one or two cookbooks at a time, and (if lucky) a sunny weekend moment at the kitchen table. I make a breakfast from the leftovers of last weeks’ meals, and I make a short list of random ingredients that are still hanging around. I map out our evening obligations so that I get a clearer picture of the nights with more or less time, and when the schedule dictates who’s running the kitchen show that night. If we’re receiving Blue Apron meals that week (I still use and love this service all the time), I plug in those three recipes to get the ball rolling. Already the week sounds delicious, and I haven’t had to do a thing.

Mapping out the week this way takes some work, and a lot of follow-thru. But once the road map is there and the grocery list is ready, I already feel a lot better about it. It used to feel like such an undertaking to me, and I was prone to procrastinate on the task. But ritualizing the process – even down to my favorite teacup for coffee while I work – has made it part of my Saturday routine.

I’ve also made a practice of reading each new cookbook I purchase or receive from start to finish as soon as I receive it. To me they read like a regular book text, and if I know what is inside each cookbook, I’m much more likely to reach for it. And when I do, I’ll pull several recipes at a time from one book. Often there are similar ingredient veins throughout the book, and that also helps to keep my ingredient lists slim and trim.

It’s taken several years of regular practice, but even the way the list is organized and compiled makes the grocery experience better. I used to despise the act of grocery shopping, but it doesn’t bother me as much anymore. I’ve slowly folded it into the start of each new week, and I try to use it as a quiet moment of expressing gratitude. Most of that gratitude happens in the produce section. We try to limit sweet treats at home, but always serve fruit with or after dinner. I am frequently grateful when shopping for fruit – in its seasonal abundance, and how it reminds me to savor the moment I’m in right then. I used to lament the last of the peaches, but now I know how good they are when they return again. The ritual of eating peaches for breakfast on the beach might be my favorite one of all.

We’re in the middle of a significant snowstorm this weekend, and many of our regular weekend rituals have been cancelled or postponed. I’m excited for the possibilities of a different sort of weekend – the kind that happens so rarely as to be magical. I’ve learned that rigidity in rituals doesn’t work for me, and leads to disappointment. Sometimes things get busy and overscheduled and we get off track for a week. But that muscle memory is strong, and I can sense when another Saturday aligns again in a way that fills me up again.

So I’m off to make coffee, and warm some pears in the oven, and move at a slower pace for a few more minutes before we head out into the wintry wonderland. I promise to return to this idea more next Saturday.

saturday (intention)

**Quick note. I’ve missed writing here, and so I’ve pledged to myself to back off the all or nothing thinking, and to establish a reasonable schedule of regular writing practice for myself. This year I’ll post something each Saturday that I’ve been thinking about in that past week, starting today.**

I’ve noticed a trend in recent years – and I like it – to select or name a word for the coming year. I’ve written before about preferring the idea of stating intentions rather than creating a list of resolutions each January, and the selection of a word feels like an intentional statement. And I’m telling you the truth as I start typing this post, I don’t have a word selected yet. I’m hoping that by the time that I finish this I will. I like to think out loud as I write.

The first word that comes to mind is ‘yes’. It popped into my head a few times over the long holiday break. I felt like I said ‘no’ to a lot of things in November / December as I did my best to balance an extraordinary workload and my (often extraordinary) expectations for myself and others. And then I found myself defaulting to that ‘no’ mode, even beyond the push. So I checked myself, took a deep breath, and started saying ‘yes’ again.

I can tend towards being a homebody if I don’t watch myself. It takes effort for me to extract myself from thinking that home = tasks = productivity = good. If I’m running around too much, I start to think (worry) about what I’m not getting done at home, and once I start to worry about those other things, I’m not enjoying where I am in that moment.

Because we had to shift some of our holiday traditions around a bit this year to accommodate the travel plans of family members, we found ourselves with a very rare stretch of time off to spend just at home, with no agenda. We were already speaking of this time reverently in early November, repeating it like a mantra as we scrambled from task to task. Knowing that time was coming is what got me through December – that, plus a near-constant practice of productivity and positivity – as silly as that sounds. I knew it would be a challenge, but I treated it like it was the most fun challenge I’ve ever faced, and it wasn’t really that bad. I stayed organized, (mostly) sane, delegated without debate, and practiced being satisfied with each day’s efforts.

It felt really good to be productive and busy, and also really good to relax afterwards. To be honest, the relaxing part takes more work for me than the productivity. I took a few naps, finished a book, took some daytime tub soaks, and went to bed without setting an alarm clock for an entire week. I rarely even do that on vacation. But the rest of the time I stayed busy with year end and year beginning stuff. It was tempting to just stay in my pajamas all day and Get Stuff Done.

But that’s not necessarily the intention I’d like to carry into this new year. I’ve accepted that I’m always going to be running full speed ahead, even in those moments that I intentionally pause. But I’d like to channel more of that energy outwards, and to lean towards ‘yes’ more than the default ‘let me think about it’ (what will I have to give up? how much will I have to stretch or risk?). Maybe this is about bigger things – ownership opportunities, new positions, bigger reaches – but I’m mostly thinking about the smaller things. Those moments that pop up in the middle of homebody tasks – let’s drop what we’re doing and spend the day hiking and exploring – that I’d like to default ‘yes’ to. Moving beyond saying that I’d like to see this or do this, and actually scheduling it in that moment and then following through on it. Continuing to hone my decisiveness, and trusting my gut. I’ve been working on that for awhile now, and I like where it’s taken me.

For several years now, I’ve attended a Saturday morning power yoga class. I’ve come to love the instructor and all the regulars in the class. The room fills up quickly, and when I look around the space before class begins it fills me with such joy and energy. This morning it felt even stronger, as we all engaged in our first class of the new year. At the end of class, during shavasana, our instructor quietly placed small green cards at the foot of each mat. As we left, she invited us to turn them over and read them. Each card had a different word that might represent an intention for the coming year.

Mine said ‘sanctuary – my heart is my home’. I immediately thought of the holiday cards I had just finished, and the way I talked about home in my last post. I thought about how complicated home can be, how it holds all the joys and frustrations in such an intimate way, and can easily slide from a sanctuary to an escape, particularly when I’m nervous about stepping into something new. Maybe the word for me this year is ‘willing’ – being more open to ideas that aren’t mine or that challenge my comfort levels or knowledge or security. I like that word, and it feels as much active verb as passive descriptor. Willing.

But I’m here at the end of these words, and I still like ‘yes’. So ‘yes’ it is. It’s a simple response I can practice in my own head until it becomes muscle memory.