gates and guardians: a reflection on the state of a sorrowful heart

Dave and I have spent the last seven days in silence.

No, we’re not in a fight.

Well…

Not with each other at least.

Rather, we have spent the last week at a six-night meditation retreat. I did something similar a few years back and wrote about here (in prose) and here (in verse).

This retreat was a completely different experience and style, but no less impacting. Reflecting with Dave on the way back (finally out of silence!), I remarked on the oddest thing: to see forty people sitting in various states of stillness–some on cushions, some on chairs, some on benches–all poised like little perfect, quiet, quaint Buddha statues. But beneath that serene image, a war wages! Thoughts, “come back to the breath,” distractions, “be here now,” stories, “just breath,” narratives, “what am I aware of?,” memories, “inhale, exhale,” plans, “damn it, just stop thinking already,”–oh my! It is like this most placid, peaceful lake, but below the still surface, sharks are devouring triathletes piece by latex-laden-one-piece swimsuits (oh, can you see what I’m worried about…).

I spent a lot of (uncomfortable) time sitting at this retreat with these questions:

How is the quality of my heart? How open is my heart?

It wasn’t pretty.

After an emotional meltdown the final day of school, for some reasons fathomed and others only felt, I have been thinking a lot about a sense of deadening I have had lately. My highs aren’t quite as high and my lows aren’t quite as low. I wondered if this is a result of my solidifying meditation practice? I mean, that can be a good thing, right? But what I know to be true about my most authentic self is passion: rip-roaring laughter followed by belly-aching bawling (not to mention a few pants-splitting farts; did I mention this retreat was vegetarian and I’ve had a lot of roughage lately?!).

Anyway, back to the matters of the heart. Literally (how about that transition?).

I also reflected on the quality of my relationships with people. After all, isn’t this the sign of an open heart? I care for people–it’s my job after all–but all too often, it is on my own terms and when I can control it. I’m not very good at accepting gestures of kindness or affection (as demonstrated on this retreat, where I felt guilty and lazy [“I must not be working hard enough,” she thought to herself, “oh wait, stop thinking…”] because it just felt too nourishing–what IS that?!).

And though I’m still sitting with it (yep, trust me, my butt hurts, and brain, and heart), I can only explore the answer to these questions (at least at this point) through the lens of grief. My mere third decade of life has been defined by the razored edges of loss and grief. Prepared, but no less heartbroken, I lost my dad in 2011. Unprepared, and all the more heartbroken, I lost my mom less than two years later. Then our very old cat. Then our very young dog. (Which, really, come on, pets? What does that matter? But when the wound is open and raw, even a faint breeze stings deeply. Not to mention the odd parallels between my parents’ and pets’ deaths [read about that bizarre connection here]).

Who am I?

am grief.

And so, I coped. I’d like to say pretty well. I have not lost the roots of gratitude nor faith to the black hole of bitterness.

But I come back to the questions at hand:

How is the quality of my heart? How open is my heart?

How could I not, on some level–hidden, deep, essential, true–close my heart after all that heartbreak?

Perhaps the loss-womb birthed a Guardian who stands at the entrance with an iron grip on the pulsing blood-veined gates.

He is fierce. He is loyal. He is protective.

But maybe it’s time I bid him farewell. In peace. In gratitude. In honor.

Dear Guardian of my heart, you came unbidden, but ached for.

Thank you for the gift of one sure, slow step at a time in the dark, tear-damp forest of the grieving soul.

Thank you for the preservation of what is good while so. much. bad. gnawed at my bones.

I bow to you. But, alas, it is time I send you on your way.

May you protect another vulnerable heart.

But for now, it is time I open the gates.

I open the gates.

I open my heart.

 

 

 

 

 

taking attendance (or practicing presence: part 2)

Present.

I sit this morning in stillness, reading a soul book a soul friend gave me.

Present.

I sit this morning listening to the song of birds. One little fellow is having himself a good ol’ time: a solo act of twirps and tweets and toots among the branches. I practice mindful listening, acting as a conscious port of entry for guest-sounds that come and go.

I don’t attend to this mental door enough.

Just recently on the way to school, I asked Dave a question. Next thing I know he’s saying something vaguely in the background. And by background I mean the screen of my email and the work issues I’m already addressing mentally. I literally asked him a question yet did not wait long enough to hear the answer!

Absent as a wife.

Sometimes I will stare at a student while they talk, even nodding at appropriate moments, and then a minute later realize I have no idea what they have just said. Instead, my mind is on the treadmill of lesson plans and grading and emails and policy frustrations and colleague conversations and…

Absent as a teacher.

Sometimes, a coworker will be talking to me, and I will literally still be typing an email while thinking about a different email I need to send. I sacrifice presence for the sake of productivity.

Absent as a colleague.

More times than I’d like to admit I’ve found myself saying to a friend who is in the middle of a story: “Oh yeah, I do remember you saying something about that.” Vaguely. But just as I didn’t fully attend to the first conversation, I will later only vaguely remember this one as well.

Absent as a friend.

While I was reflecting on this, I went through past pieces I’ve written about mindfulness. When I stumbled upon this one, I sunk under the choking weight of repetition. I literally wrote about the same. exact. thing. in 2014.

I’m even absent as a writer!

But, since mindfulness is a constant, kind returning, I do just that: return.

I take, and retake, attendance.

Present.

In this present moment, I am grateful.

I am grateful for vacation, a break from work, a time when I don’t need consistent attention to my phone (though, do I ever, really?).

I am grateful for our upcoming 6-night silent meditation retreat, a chance to reset.

I am grateful for summer, a time to reconnect and refuel.

Present.

tri it on: my first open water swim

Last November, Dave and I were in Guaruja when there happened to be a triathlon. Fascinated, we spent much of the morning watching swimmers, bikers and runners compete and transition from one event to the next. A little seed was planted that day.
And now, I’m registered for my very first sprint tri! Gulp.
One piece of advice I kept finding in my research was to practice an open water swim before the actual event. And so, last month on a beach trip to Boicucanga, I did just that.
Of course, it wasn’t quite that easy. It took quite a bit of courage-mustering, if you will. Despite being a naturally strong swimmer, there’s just something about all that open water. Riptides. Sharks. Sea monsters. Bacteria. Runaway boats. Did I mention sharks?! Oh my.
But with Dave following along with me from the beach, I did it. And I’m not gonna lie, I was suppressing a low-grade panic attack the entire time. One, the water was so green and murky; it felt ominous, something akin to swimming in a witch’s cauldron. Two, it’s hard to keep a straight line. Three, the waves lapping and the chilly water and the near-panic-attack-mode make breathing cumbersome. Four, I was just sure something was going to get me out there. Five, I had to quit earlier than I wanted because my mouth was burning from the salt water. Even typing this is eliciting some anxiety!
But, I did it. And I’d do it again. Though the burning mouth…there’s gotta be some technique I’m missing there!
Here’s a video if it suits your fancy.

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