Sign, Sign, Everywhere A Sign

I’m one of those people who can easily get lost.  Maybe it’s because I tend to take the road less traveled, the one off the beaten path.  Since most people choose to ignore the idea to go where my inner compass insists I do, it’s not so easy to stop and ask for directions.  That’s why I really love signs.  

Not the obvious ones like, “Stop. Go.  No Loitering.  OOL – There’s no “P” in our pool.  Let’s keep it that way.” 

I‘m talking about the signs  that hold personal significance for me.  When a hawk appears out of nowhere to guide me along a trail, I pay attention.  When I randomly open a book to a page that has the exact Bach Flower Remedy for my current state of agitation, I am grateful.  Or when I get the inkling to visit a website where I learn about the English Lakes District tour  just in the nick of time to participate, I know someone or something is looking out for me.

This trek off the beaten path started when I was in college and participated in a National Student Exchange program.   I spent one semester at McGill University in Montreal and another at Université Laval in Quebec City.  Presumably being plucked from a small farming community where everyone spoke English and arriving on the international scene where most everyone spoke French was the best way to hasten my comprehension of a foreign language. 

In my youthful innocence, I thought this was a splendid plan, ripe with romance, adventure, and really sophisticated sounding accents.  Few people concurred, except my parents, who didn’t really concur so much as concede that at the very least, a bad experience would hamper further efforts along a misguided path.

Of course, it ended up being one of the best years of my life.  I can’t speak for Dorothy, another farm girl who took a little trip to an exotic land, but I’m sure Oz rearranged her reality and emboldened her future decisions much like my Canadian adventure.

So it amazes me how I anguish over the little decisions, the kind grocery or shoe shopping is fraught with, while big decisions with enormous emotional consequences – like leaving the country, adopting a dog, or buying a house – are no brainers.

Maybe because big decisions demand inner alignment.  Something shifts when a clear plan emerges.  The certainty with which my body responds is immediate.  I get energized.  I wake up early.  I exercise without internal bribes.  I get organized.  I get interested in life.  I tolerate things I previously found intolerable.

The problem is these plans are often inconceivable to those near and dear to me.  I don’t fault them.  They love me and are looking out for my safety and happiness.  They most likely did not experience the tectonic plates shift under their feet the way I did.  They are looking through their own life lens.  And sometimes, in areas where they may hold fear, I am fearless.  (Caveat:  I only claim fearlessness in a few select areas.) 

I admit, the plan probably does look ridiculous from a rational person’s perspective.  But the kind of coup I am considering  when I intend to overhaul my internal landscape cannot be bound by reason.  If I rely on those who insist on sanity in the decision making process, I will be swayed from the terrifying truth of my own convictions. 

A few weeks ago when the ideal house I’d been mentally manifesting for months appeared on the scene and I started waking up at 5am to ponder the possibilities of home ownership, I knew something significant had shifted. 

I’d been stewing about my current house since my landlord placed it on the market a year ago, leaving me susceptible to random showings.  Despite the unsettling intrusions, I stubbornly stayed put because my next move was sure to be out of Dodge.  But when new neighbors built a home on the lot right next to me, the increasing sense of claustrophobia left me determined to correct the situation by summer’s end.

So my very bold decision this week was to buy the dream home and commit to staying not in  heaven, but Iowa, to reap the fields of opportunity I’ve been sewing here for the past four years.  Of course, for a decision of this magnitude, several signs were necessary.  Not to mention a really understanding real estate agent.

Suffice it to say, there is a certain amount of stress that is relieved when a commitment is made. Instead of imagining where I might live out my fantasy life of being a full time writer with a pool in the backyard and mountains in the distance, I can start working towards it on evenings and weekends here where a river runs through my backyard and rolling hills speckled with happy cows can be seen in the distance.

A muddy river and happy cows.  My kind of signs. 

Dorothy really was right. 

There’s no place like home.

Grow Into What You Know

I’m a recovering workshop junkie.  In my younger years, if there was a workshop on anything physical, metaphysical, spiritual, mystical, or magical and I could beg, borrow, or barter my way there, I’d go.   

The locations of these workshops only added to the allure for me – San Diego, Kaui, Big Sur, Santa Fe, Tucson, Sedona, Maui, Boulder, Portland, Bend, and Whidbey Island.  It was easier to pretend enlightenment could be achieved in geographically luscious landscapes than in my hometown. 

The truth is, if you don’t bring it with you, you won’t find it wherever you happen to land.  Admittedly, you might be more open to its presence gazing into a cascading waterfall or a wide blue ocean while sipping umbrella drinks with the cabana boy or sitting zazen with meditating monks and majestic mountains in the background. 

However, the real discipline of happiness, peace, or sanity is cultivating it in the present moment under the current circumstances.  I love one of Gretchen Rubin’s Secrets to Adulthood that states what you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while. 

This means you practice cultivating peace, compassion, or non-violence while on hold with the Department of Transportation and in the middle of a tense moment with a customer and as you support your spouse when he or she struggles with Elementary Algebra in the latest back to school effort.  Naturally this is more difficult than cultivating these emotional states while stroking your purring kitten, adoring your latest macramé sweater, or shoe shopping. This is precisely why it is called a practice, no?

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m all about escaping to exotic locales or anywhere that allows for a change of scenery and some greenery.  This summer seems to have called forth an unprecedented need in me to escape.  Every attempt at progress or forward movement has been thwarted by something beyond my control.  This leaves me especially irritable as I move into the most stressful month of the academic year and highly susceptible to any offers of a last minute getaway.

My challenge has been to accept this with grace and appreciate the gift of not getting what I want.  The good news about my workshop junkie years is although I am far from enlightened, I retained some sage advice from unforgettable teachers that whispers to me in times such as these. 

Like six-second soundbites, wisdom needs context to be fully integrated.  While it was exciting to seek the knowledge, it was arrogant to think I could pass it on to others before I had the proper context or experience in which to frame it.  When I used to do corporate trainings I’d find myself saying certain things with authority because I had heard my teachers and gurus say them.  One day I was saying some simple phrase like, “Be here now,” and dropped to my knees.  Five years after saying this nonchalantly, I totally got it and was deeply humbled.

This tends to happen to me more at midlife.  The cockiness of youth and the certainty of knowing it all give way to the certainty of knowing very little and the curiosity of continuing to learn. 

One of my favorite ways to learn is to listen to audio programs while driving.  It’s like a having a mobile university in my car, without having to take the aforementioned Elementary Algebra.  I get to pick the programs and be moved by the passion that moves these people to share the information.  I appreciate poetry and science and history like never before.
Right now I’m listening to John O’Donohue’s  To Bless the Space Between Us.  John was an amazing Irish poet, priest, philosopher, and lover of life who died at age 52, but left so much wisdom for the rest of us to stumble upon when ready. 

Several years ago I was in a bookstore in Berkeley and picked up Anam Cara, John’s book of Celtic wisdom. I knew it was significant, so I bought it, but I wasn’t really ready for it until now.  Now I can’t get enough of his work.  Listening to his Irish brogue as he recites these blessings is a feast for my ears.

I suppose  I’ll always be a workshop junkie at heart.  I love to learn!  But the wisdom will only be like junk food until I metabolize it by practicing it and living it.  

One of my very best days on planet Earth was the day I got to see the Dalai Lama.  After seeing His Holiness in Tucson, my friend and I went to a yoga studio where Krishna Das was performing.  This was about as far from anything I’d ever experienced growing up on a farm in Illinois.  But there I was, chanting and moving about like a whirling dervish. The combination of wisdom, chanting, and whirling elevated me into some kind of altered state that lasted the plane ride home.  And just as quickly as enlightenment came, it went.  But the knowledge of this left me forever changed.

There is a Zen proverb, “Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water.  After enlightenment; chop  wood, carry water.”  One the one hand, nothing changes.  The same things are still required of us.  On the other hand, everything changes. 

Chop, chop.