Feast On Your Life: A New Group for Not Doing

“Morning Musing” by Shelby McQuilkin | shelbymcquilkin.com

LOVE AFTER LOVE

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

~ Derek Walcott (1930-2017)

All this striving is killing us.

I’m not exaggerating.

It’s killing our spirits. It’s killing our creativity. It’s killing our ability to dream, to let our thoughts wander, to discover, to be awed. We’re so busy being busy that we are afraid of what will happen if we stop. Just stop.

Everything has to have a point. Be a means to an end. Result in something — an outcome, a benefit, a purpose. Our to-do lists are subtle oppressors we hitch ourselves to. We feel restless when we relax, if we even remember how. Even the things that once brought us joy become chores, or guilty pleasures. We speak of “stealing” time — to garden or nap or write. We can’t sleep. We check our phones first thing upon waking and last thing before sleeping. I’m talking about myself. I’m talking about you. I’m speaking in intimate generalizations. I’m concerned. I’m yearning.

“Simply put, creativity happens when your mind is unfocused, daydreaming or idle.” ~ Emma SeppäläScience Director, Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education :: read more

I want to lie on the floor and stare at the ceiling and have it count.

I want to walk in the woods after rain, inhaling deeply the scent of wet earth, ducking under dripping branches, stopping to look at the patterns of bark and stone.

I want to take a fresh peach in my hands and spend a few minutes touching its fuzzy skin, lifting it to my nose, and examining its colors and creases.

I want to put on a record and really listen to it — not as background music but as the thing I’m (not) doing.

I want to sit and feast on my life, as the late, great Derek Walcott memorialized in his timeless poem, Love After Love.

But how can I remember how to do this, if I don’t make time each day to “take down the love letters from the bookshelf,” read them one by one, without setting a timer, without punching a clock?

I want my writing to emerge from a place not of doing, but of being — but how will that ever happen if all I do is do?

That’s where you come in, and a brand new group.

Our lives are too precious to miss. But that’s exactly what happens when we feed the addiction of proving ourselves and how we “spend” our time, when we feel we must justify time off — and even the fact that we call it “time off” is so telling, isn’t it?

Come greet yourself.

Feast on Your Life

What it is: 
A two-week group where our focus will be on practicing the powerful art of being idle.

Each day will bring a different suggested activity, along with related readings and other supportive content. We’ll gather in a secret Facebook group to share check-ins about our experience as we go.

The focus here won’t be on writing as much as on taking some time each day to step out of the routines, the requirements, and the responsibilities — into a space that prizes a slower pace. Having nothing to show for yourself will be cause for celebration. Doesn’t that sound refreshing?

What it isn’t: 
Steeped in any particular tradition or dogma. We will draw on ideas from many sources and well as from each other’s experience.

Sign up if you: 

  • Are a chronic overachiever
  • Rarely put down your phone
  • Feel plagued by the need to prove something
  • Regularly sacrifice creativity on the altar of productivity
  • Long to feast on your life but secretly believe that’s impossible
  • Berate yourself for committing to things and not following through
  • Get nostalgic for some former self that used to listen to music, read poetry, and take walks

What are some example of “not doing” things?

  • Lying on the floor
  • Taking a slow walk with no destination (or fitbit, for that matter)
  • Napping
  • Listening to music
  • Saying no without a reason
  • Returning to something that once brought you joy
  • Sitting on a bench in the sun
  • Just calling to say hi
  • Doodling
  • Taking an extra long bath or shower
  • Eating a peach and calling it a feast
  • So much more… to be discovered together

Dates:
June 5-16

Cost:

With the intention of this group being widely inclusive, the cost is on a sliding scale. Simply use the button below to pay any amount been $49 and $149.

Eleven Things I Learned in Physical Therapy That Relate to Writing + Life

childs-poseI started physical therapy last week for the first time ever. It’s probably long overdue; I’ve had some lower back stiffness and pain on and off for nearly a year now. My first appointment with a kind woman named Rebecca resulted in a little worksheet with drawings of a person lying on their back — single knee to chest stretch, double knee to chest stretch, isometric abdominal exercise for core stability.

Today, I went back for the second time. For 45 minutes, I enjoyed the novelty of focusing on a single thing: My lower back. I could practically hear my body thanking me for listening. I made some mental notes during our session. Now it’s later, and I’m sitting here in the yellow chair that is probably not great for my back, the sun streaming in through south-facing windows warm on my hands over the keyboard.

Here’s what I learned today during physical therapy, that I’m pretty sure I can apply to writing and life.

1. Be honest.

Rebecca: How’d it go this week? 
Me: Well [looking down]… I didn’t really do my homework.
R: Thanks for telling me.
Me: Reminds me of writing, or anything, I guess. It’s easy to make excuses, when really, I just didn’t do the exercises.
R: Well, let’s get started and see how today goes.
Me: Great.

That was it. She asked, I told her. And now? We added a few things, and it’s up to me to decide how important this is to me and what will help me commit. Lying about what I did or didn’t do is certainly not going to alleviate my pain.

2. Pay attention and slow down.

Rebecca: You might want to hold each of these stretches for about 30 seconds.
Me: Wow, that makes me realize how fast I’m usually going.
Rebecca: Exactly.

The sensations and movements, like the learning itself, are so subtle sometimes you could miss them altogether if you rush through. Awareness of what’s happening requires slowing down — something that comes as a revelation all over again.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had on Sunday; at one point, I asked a question and then launched into a story, only pausing when the person I’d asked pointed out that I had said I wanted to hear her thoughts. I wasn’t paying attention. This doesn’t have to mean I was too much, it just means “push pause.” Undoing shame around this is a practice itself.

3. A little is more than nothing.

Me: I always tell the people in my writing groups that some words are more than no words.
Rebecca: Right. It’s like that here, too. Some movement is more than no movement. 

Will I do ALL of the exercises today and tomorrow, before my next appointment on Thursday? I don’t know yet. But I will do some. And that will more than before, which was none. Enough said. More words is more than no words. Five seconds is more than no seconds. Seriously, it is that simple.

4. Most things don’t happen suddenly.

As we were talking about various yoga poses this morning, I flashed on classes I took as long as 15 years ago, when I would avoid certain back bends or find myself seeking relief in child’s pose. Why? My lower back ached. I also remembered feeling that same ache after a long day of walking in NYC or Boston — as a teenager.

In other words, it suddenly became clear to me that no single injury, incident, or accident had landed me in Rebecca’s PT office.

My natural (hyper-extended) posture + two pregnancies + running + not much core strength + time = pain that had finally become chronic enough not to ignore.

How bad does something have to get before it warrants your time and attention?

5. It’s nice to have help.

Oh, it felt so good to lie on the table, even on top of that paper covering that gets all creased and makes that papery sound. To let her bend my leg, her hands on my knee and heel respectively, yielding completely to the movement she initiated. It felt good to be learning useful things.

It felt good to be doing something about something that hasn’t been working — and to have some guidance about how to do this safely and effectively in ways I could take home.

It felt good to have help.

6. You can’t know in advance.

My hope, of course, is that working with a physical therapist and learning what I can do on my own will pay off with pain relief and greater strength. It’s likely that I’ll get out of it what I put into it.

This reminds me of something Krishna Das said at the Kirtan we went to last weekend:

“We want to know what chanting will do — to us, for us — before we chant. And there’s no way to know. You can only begin and, in his words “keep singing.”

It is so simple as to be obvious that this applies to not just chanting, but… everything. No matter how many people before you have walked a given path, there is no precedent, ever, for your own lived experience. The deeper you go, the more your own body and mind and heart and choice and voice may surprise you.

And the fact remains: There’s no way to know in advance how it will go or what it will “do” for me, no matter what “it” is.

I don’t always have the most disciplined track record. When did I stop stretching? I asked Rebecca at one point (as if she’d be able to tell me). But what I didn’t do doesn’t matter. And while there’s no predicting how this will go, I’ve signed up to give it a shot and see what happens. My job is to keep singing, er, stretching.

7. no one else can do it for you.

Unless you live in some kind of cool sci-fi world where people have actual body-doubles, there’s no surrogate for you. I am the only one who can take  the time today — five or ten minutes at a pop, say — to take care of my body. Nobody else is going to do it, nor could they even if they offered.

Whether it’s on the yoga mat or the blank page, there’s no substitute for the ordinary yet radical act of showing up.

8. change happens. so does inertia.

If I go to physical therapy and do my homework, I may see changes in my body. My hope — my expectation — is that these will be positive changes. Improvement. I’ve defined this as less pain, more mobility, and greater strength and endurance.

If I don’t go to physical therapy, or I go but don’t do jack shit at home, I may also see changes in my body. My guess is that things will at worst, worsen, and at best, continue to go the way they’ve been going — a little something we call inertia.

In this case — where there is actual pain — I am essentially inviting more pain but doing nothing. The changes that will happen may be negative; they will hurt, they will limit me in some ways, and I will have to adjust other things in my life around that.

Inertia is not an inherently good or bad thing, but it is a thing. And it is, to some degree, a choice. 

9. don’t wait.

If you’re hurting — whether it’s your body, your heart, or your mind that hurts — don’t ignore yourself. I say this knowing full well how easy it is to put stuff off, to say we don’t have time. In fact, I said that to Mani last week — on my way to PT, no less! I believe our exact dialogue went like this:

Me: I don’t have time for PT. 
Her: You don’t have time for not PT.

(Wise, that one, isn’t she?)

If you don’t know where to start, start right where you are. Write something down. Make a list of symptoms, whether they’re physical or emotional, specific or vague. Tell a friend, cast a line, or make the call.

10. trust yourself.

Always. Both with doctors and teachers, I’ve had experiences when I pushed aside my own experience and deferred to the “expert.” Every time I’ve done this, it caught up with me. I “paid” for not listening to my body or not taking my own instincts seriously. Just because someone has professional training does not mean they know more about you than you do.

At the end of the day, only we can know what it feels like in there. (May we encounter practitioners who value and respect this dance.)

11. the world needs us whole.

We can do so much more from each other when we’re tending to our own pain rather than lobbing it at each other or hobbling around hurting and unable to deal.

**

These insights may not be life-changing or new. But more and more, I find that it’s revisiting the small things that makes for big changes in my life — all of it, the loving, the working, the writing, the having a body thing. One knee lift and one word, at a time.

Why I Was Late for Our Meeting

“Your head is a living forest full of songbirds.” — e.e. cummings

I was held up by irises
that demanded I stop
to look closely — I didn’t think
you’d mind, the surprise
of yellow and blush of pink,
so distinct from the blue ones
I’m tracking in our tiny garden
by the driveway.

But there’s more:
I stopped at the Cushman Store
for an iced latte before our call,
and bumped into a man I know
well enough to have to say hello
but not well enough to use words
beyond good, nice, fine, and well.

This man recently endured
treatment for prostate cancer.
His smile was warm, if worn.
Next to him sat a grizzly man
with a dewy newborn in his lap.
I wanted to swoop up the baby.
My kids think I’m a baby stalker.
They are only partly wrong.

The thing is, my head is a living forest
full of songbirds, and my spirit
is powered by sun and flight,
my body would do anything
to protect a child and my heart
wants to break at the beauty
of irises and bodies, the pain
we must move through
in order to bloom.

It’s no wonder I was late — I know
you’ll agree. You’ve taught this
to me, you know, by writing
what’s true, by showing your rage
and battle, your tenderest inside,
most private petals of layers
where you house memory,
where once you unbolted the walls
and bolted with only a bag
on your back and eyes
that could see
so clearly it made you weep.

I’ve seen the whorl of fingerprints.
There’s a song here
I’m trying to hear.
If that means
being late,
so be it.

Wait.

Magic Tricks

cardsWe were still awake as the clock struck midnight.

But there was no great striking. In modern times, this means we were the first to see whose birthdays had just begun on Facebook. I wrote a limerick, as I do for every member of The Inky Path and my own writing groups, deliberating over rhyme and rhythm and doing my damndest to fit as much about her personality as possible into five lilting lines.

We’d had the sweetest evening here. The kind of evening that left both of us feeling a deep satisfaction, fulfillment, and gratitude that, when taken without concern for the future, is nothing short of magnificent.

Aviva and I ate French Toast for dinner. Mani spent an hour and a half on the phone with her youngest, who turned 16 yesterday in Phoenix.

Pearl came bursting in around 7:00pm after being out with friends. She was eager to show us the magic trick she’d learned during that day’s session with Mr. K., her 3rd grade teacher, whom she still gets to spend lunchtimes with now and then practicing with her two decks of cards.

She showed me first in her room, to practice, and I was truly wowed. I still don’t know how she did it! Then she came to the living room to do it again (twice) with Mani, who was also wonderfully impressed.

Aviva wandered in and out from her room, which is attached to the living room. She could hear every word of our conversation, including my more adoring ones to Mani (“I can hear you, you know,” she called out, or something to that effect). I flipped through the Barnard Magazine and read about a documentary, Deep Run, by an alumna who graduated a year after me, Hillevi Loven, “a powerful verité portrait of trans life in rural North Carolina.” It sounds amazing and just reading about it made me all goosebumpy.

We felt like a family.

We are a family.

I read with Pearl, who was falling-over tired around 9:30, and then found V flopped across our bed talking to Mani about Everything Under the Sun. She’s getting really passionate about LGBTQ+ (I am told the plus symbol stands for something like 200 other things I’ve never heard of — we’ve come a long way, baby) issues; I have this feeling her new school is doing nothing short of miraculous for her, which is that there are no cliques. People are accepting. And the gender binary, by the way, is being shattered to smithereens by this generation.

I came into the kitchen to eat a snack and have a few minutes alone. Then we kicked V out of our room — no small feat when she actually wants to hang out with us — and snuggled up. I’m now reminded of something I read last week via  Jeanette LeBlanc: Now That Lesbians Can Marry, Can We Admit They Have Sex?  (Ironically, it was under Jeanette’s roof that Mani and first found each other, in January 2012, which is what I’ve been writing about in my latest round of leading Mini Memoirs.)

And oh, yes, they — we — do. We have sex, and we fuck, and we make sweet, sweet love. We cry afterwards and we burst out laughing sometimes and last night, we knew that some secrets belong to us alone and will never leave the walls of our bedroom.

Throw in some Downton Abbey, and like I said, we were still awake as the clock didn’t exactly strike midnight, but as a single, irreplaceable day in our lives together came to a close. Then I read to Mani what I’d written yesterday, part 9 in a 10-part remembrance of that weekend we first met.

Here are the last few paragraphs:

What did we think would happen? Happily ever after? That if only we could be in one place and not long-distance, everything would be ok?

Yes.

And it was. It is. Everything is ok. It matters to remember because in that moment, throughout that weekend, on that night in Jeannette’s daughter’s room where we slept entangled for the first time, knowing on some cellular level it was where we both belonged, we knew. It was easy. We were both floored by this sensation, especially in contrast to the very challenging and ultimately toxic people we’d been in relationships with as bridges from marriage to freedom to this kind of love, a heretofore unknown kind of love.

Certain life circumstances have been harder than I ever dreamed, forcing me to stand up against my own expectations, stories, fears, needs, and desires. Up against the monolithic wall of ego. Of control. Of selfishness. But remembering our first weekend together and coming home over and over to this love, this palace of belonging, I soften and find center. Climbing over her, her body regaining the curves and contours she lost to illness, I am flooded with desire again.

We could spend all of our time fretting and freaking out that we don’t have enough time. We could. Sometimes, I do.

And we could sink so deeply into the time we’re in that it becomes infinite. During a coaching session last week, the word “telescopic” came up. Yes, like that. In, in, in. Things far away become very close, and if you hold it the other way around, the opposite happens: you can look at something close up and it becomes tiny.

One great big illusion?

I jokingly begged Pearl to tell me how she did it. How’d she get the blue card on the table to change without touching it? It was a two of spades, and then it was a five of hearts.

“A magician never reveals her tricks,” Mani reminded me, on Pearl’s behalf.

Sleight of hand. Something we stand in awe at, impressed, amazed. And here’s the thing: Behind the scenes, a magician spends hours with her former third-grade teacher. She makes time to learn, pays very close attention, and practices — a lot. She’s devoted to her art.

I like to imagine that God is, too.

And I know this, too, as I sit here on a Saturday morning with strong coffee and a brand-new day begun: I’m devoted to mine. To writing. To holding space for others to write and learn from their own practice. To being wowed without asking how it’s done, and to remembering that so much goes on that we don’t ever know or see or understand. And to family. My family.