My Bearings

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The bear track halted my run. It and a string of identical cousins imprinted the sandy trail ahead of me. If I paid no attention to the crescent moons pressed by the claws, the tracks resembled a child’s delicate footprint. Rounded, plump indents. Chubby toes.

The cherubic tread traveled north on the trail, the same direction I was going.

A thought shoved stiff rebar down my spine: how fresh were these tracks?

I am no practiced or professional tracker. I have friends who are. If only they were there with me. Or, if only I had cell service! Then I could beam them some pics and they could tell me, “Bah, those tracks are weeks old. You’re fine.” Or, “GET THE HELL OUTTA THERE!”

The other shoe prints and horse hoof indents decorating the trail all appeared mottled with time or wind-smudged; their edges indistinct. Only my marks and the bear’s were crisply defined, trodden atop all the others.

A wintry gust shoved through the canyon. It pried under the insulated clothing and licked goosebumps across my skin.

I traced the tracks backwards. How long had I shared the trail with them without notice?

Quite a while.

My stomach dropped somewhere below my knees. That bear might be only a few yards ahead! And I was miles from the trailhead, completely alone.

With clumsy, shaking hands, I unsnapped my water pack and rummaged its pockets. I heard in my stooped position nothing but the chrrgg-chrrgg-chrrgg of adrenaline-laced blood surging through my system. At last, I procured the little canister of pepper spray.

As I slid the pack back on, my nostrils scoured the breeze for that unmistakable tangy, musky bear body odor. When I smelled nothing but the cold, many thoughts crowded in. I was being irrational. Bears avoid people at all costs. Even if those tracks were fresh, odds were good that my scent and my noises had probably prodded the bear to jog way ahead and hide to evade me entirely.

I resumed my run. Calm returned gradually and with it came the question I’d been taught to ask whenever my overactive imagination led me too far into fear’s terrain: Does this feel familiar?

While my imagination serves my writing well, it often skews reality for me. When I am afraid, I can spin a thousand fictitious narratives around the potential causes and outcomes. But those scenarios bear zero connection to the reality of the moment. They are usually a facade, a replica or facsimile, compiled from some past trauma.

Essentially, from a young age I became adept at buying fear’s tickets and riding the panic coaster through every loop dee loop.

When I asked myself if this fear in this moment and in this place felt familiar, I readily answered: yes!

On another wintry day in this very canyon where the sandstone cliffs resemble shortbread castles and baggy elephants, I had experienced fear. Perhaps exactly a year ago, I hiked this trail. At that time, I was facing the last winter and holiday season I’d ever get with my beloved best friend. On some level, I’d probably elected to do a strenuous hike because I needed to prove that I could endure. That I could survive the looming loss.

How could I possibly go on writing without this most trusted reader delighting in my creations? Who would I be without this person in my life? I was certain the answers to these questions awaited me at the end of the hike.

Back then, this trek was arduous for me. I’d packed gobs of food and water. The eight or so miles took most of the day for me to walk, with plenty of breaks to rest my aching feet and legs. I can still remember how I wanted to turn back after the first couple miles. No way could I complete this hike. But I did, practically staggering the last mile back to the car.

Fast forward, and here I was, out for a leisurely run. I knew I’d finish the circuit in hardly more than an hour.

The irrational fear dusted up by those bear tracks had nothing to do with the present moment. They stirred up fear I’d known in the past.

I marveled at my transformation. My skill. My strength. My power. That girl in that situation was a thousand miles away.

And the bear tracks? Gone. Although I never saw them veer off the trail, they did vanish, freeing me to forge my own way forward.

 

 

Photo credits: “Rock Creek Trail” and “Sandstone Castles” copyright Jennifer Mason; featured image “Canyon Curves” also copyright Jennifer Mason; “Black Bear Tracks” by K Young CC 3.0.

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When the Words Breathe

A five-week beginner meditation class? Right now? In the middle of letting go…processing loss…the death of my wildest dreams?

Yes, please!

For the first class, I and fifty other beginners settled on the zafu cushions at the local Dharma Center and listened to the instructor’s lectures on mindfulness, the Four Noble Truths, accepting the inevitability of suffering as a path to ending pain, and loving-kindness. I spent solid hunks of hours, eyes closed, mind quiet, awareness focused solely on the body and the breath. I knew only the contours of the present moment.

Inhale.
Exhale.
Notice: I am breathing.
Repeat.

Meditation was a cinch!

At the end of class, we novices received a homework assignment: meditate every day. For as many minutes as we wanted. At any time of day.

A week passed and we beginning meditators congregated at the Dharma Center yet again.

“How was the practice going at home?” the instructor inquired.

We all shrugged, hoping to pass off guilt as nonchalance because hardly anyone actually did the homework. Or maybe we did for a day or two, but then…well, a million factors fouled up repeat attempts. A nagging voice owled in the back of the head insisted: there wasn’t time, and besides, what good would it do, and wouldn’t it be more satisfying to binge The Grand Tour?

That was certainly my experience. Meditation didn’t fit in the morning routine. It didn’t slide anywhere into the afternoon. And before I knew it, 11pm haunted the clocks and no way was I going to stay up even later to sit and breathe.

Tomorrow. I’ll do it tomorrow! Cross my heart.

And then…tomorrow’s 11pm arrived with no meditation accomplished.

I marveled at my wild, insatiable inability. Didn’t I feel fabulous after meditating in class? Yes. Didn’t I find a stronger, swifter ability to identify my negative, self-defeating thoughts and habits and work through them? Without a doubt.

So why couldn’t I make the practice happen? Why couldn’t I get it to stick? And why did this mystifying resistance feel so familiar?

Oooohhhh, riiiiight. I had the same trouble, the same reluctance, establishing a reliable daily writing practice.

Plenty of writers struggle with what the pros call “B-I-C,” or butt-in-chair” time. And just like the meditation practice, writing habits suffer from those myriad competing factors.

Time. Work. Family. Pets. Time. Add to all that the inner voice—the one made of turpentine and bolt rust—which hisses: What’s the point? It’s not like you’re any good. No one’s going to bother reading that drivel. Published anything lately? Or…ever?

And yet, in order to succeed (master writing skills, complete a project, or revise a story), the writer must create a solid writing habit. Likewise, if the novice meditator is to ever acquire equanimity (or just a smidgeon of enlightenment), she must develop the practice.

“Even the Dalai Lama practices meditating every day,” my instructor kindly coached.

With only a couple classes left and no still no devoted practice in place, I weaseled the conundrum, ripping it open to find the solution in its guts. Showing up to class was easy. I never missed it. Of course, I had paid for the class; whereas, I paid nothing to meditate at home. Was the solution a penalty jar to which I would pay a fine each time I failed to meditate? Probably not. It hadn’t helped the writing. Pay to take a writing class—hell, go in debt for an entire graduate program—but when the course is over, no one and nothing is around mandating you sit down and write…at home…for free.

What else made attending class so easy? What other factors made the act of showing up to meditate one night a week so intractable?

Well, the “classroom” in the Dharma Center always had the essential supplies set out and ready for use. A cushion was there waiting for me. Also, the instructor always had a topic to explore, a purpose for being there, a technique to try during the guided meditations. Finally, each class always concluded with a spoken reminder—an invitation—to return for more practice. “See you next week. Same time,” the instructor said.

As an experiment, I replicated these classroom facets at home. I set up my little meditation space: a cushion, a blanket, and a timer were now waiting for me. I then considered the purpose of my at-home meditation. I pondered the technique or focus I could apply. Then I designated my class time: the next day at such-and-such time. I spoke the invitation aloud. When the appointed time rolled around, to my delight, I showed up, I sat down, began to breathe, and listened as the bolt rust voice gurgled up and did its best to dissuade me.

I was neither surprised nor discouraged. The voice arose in the actual meditation class, too. The instructor knew it would and told us novices to simply notice it and return the attention to our breathing. As time expanded, the voice diminished. The timer dinged and I voiced the invitation to return, “Same time tomorrow.”

It’s been a few weeks since class ended, but my daily practice continues. It has solidified into my routine. And to my fellow writers, I offer this approach if you are struggling to pin down your own regular writing practice. Set up the writing space and set out the supplies. Make sure a chair, paper, and pen are always there, waiting for you to arrive. Plan your “lesson.” Consider what you will do when you arrive at the writing space. The purpose can be open (I will write) or specific (I will write chapter one). Or, you can experiment using an exercise from a craft book. Then appoint the “class time.” Tomorrow at 6 a.m. or 10:30 p.m. Maybe plug it into your calendar, as you might a real class.

Finally, when the time comes, arrive at your space. Take your supplies in hand. Notice the turpentine talk, and without buying into its narrative, simply write.

Write one word.
Write another.
Notice: I am writing.
Repeat.

Let the words flow as effortless, as limitless, as essential as breath.

Images (from top to bottom): “Meditation” by Worlds’ Direction (PD); “a bit clumsy” by Vicki DeLoach (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0); “Meditation” by Scott Schumacher (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0); and “Pen” by Jorge Letria (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

You’ve eaten…maybe prayed…definitely loved. Now it’s time to get magical in some very practical ways.

Gilbert, Elizabeth. Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. New York: Riverhead Books, 2015. Print.

Genre: nonfiction, creative inspiration

Summary: The sage and witty writer who brought you the worldwide bestseller, The Misadventures of a Messed-up Woman Traveling Through Three Countries in Three Months, All to Find the True Source of Joy (alternately and succinctly titled Eat, Pray, Love) returns to tell creative types and would-be creative types: own your soul and go make something today!

Critique: I will often recommend this as a craft book to writers, even though it does not tell them how to better hone the craft of writing. It will, however, help them craft a better soul more suited to the lifelong pursuit of writing!

While each “chapter” of this text is only a paragraph or three, the book feels densely packed with fresh perspectives on the value of and necessity for living creatively. For instance, Gilbert notes that as a species, humans took up art at least 40,000 years ago. Surprisingly, we only bothered with agriculture about 10,000 years ago. That means we found it more important to make attractive, superfluous items than to reliably feed ourselves!

Gilbert gives everyone a permission slip to be creative and express themselves. And I mean that literally and figuratively. She reminds readers to get off the tightrope slung between “I suck” and “I am greatest.” Stand firmer on the grounds of, “I am here.” That’s it. Neither bad, nor good. Just here. And while here, entitled to your own voice and vision.

She also surmises that if you feel the urge to create, but too often ignore it, then you’ll likely spend your time destroying something. A bank account, a relationship, or maybe your own self-esteem.

Just as in Eat, Pray, Love, readers will find here Gilbert’s signature style, which never strays far from nakedly honest, graciously humble, and fantastically witty. Her voice — whether on the page or recorded for audiobooks — is reassuring, kind, and invigorating. It’s a voice so comforting I’ve started using it whenever my negative, snitty inner critic begins to gabble on about what a joke I am. Before that crank gets on a roll, I remind myself that my inner critic is NOT my inner editor. My inner editor loves my work and it tells me (in Liz Gilbert’s charming, sparkling voice) how much it wants me to succeed!

So, is there a project you’re dodging? A dream you’ve harbored but never sailed on open waters? Maybe it’s time to stop making excuses and start making big magic.

Small Move, Big Change by Caroline Arnold

Did you set a resolution in January that has yet to pan out? Good news: you’re not alone. Great news: this book might help you get back on track.

Arnold, Caroline. Small Move, Big Change: Using Microresolutions to Transform Your Life Permanently. New York: Viking, 2014. Print.

Summary: Arnold unpacks a methodology for setting teeny-tiny goals with itsy-bitsy implementation plans. Given time (a few weeks), those bits and pieces accumulate and transform into the behemoth we all crave: change for the better.

Critique: According to Arnold, 88% of all Americans fail on their resolutions and goal-setting. Part of the problem roots in how we state our goals.

I want to get…(fill in the blank: a novel published, buff, more organized, etc.).

Or, I want to be…(again fill in: a writer, rich, tidy, etc).

In order to get or be anything, one must first do. So, to set an attainable goal, start by rewording it with what you can do.

The next trick requires an understanding of how the brain does things, which is primarily by habit. Habits, or auto-pilot behaviors, form because the brain prefers speed and efficiency. Technically, so do most of us. Do you really want to stop and think about how to tie your shoes or brush your teeth every.single.time as if it was the first time you ever tied your shoes or brushed your teeth? Who’s got time for that? Not you, says your brain, so the neurons carve out some deep, habitual grooves which lead to rapid-fire auto-actions. But if you want to be/get something new, you must develop new habits, which means you must fill in those deep grooves and carve new ones.

To work with the brain’s neuroplastic abilities — that is, its ability to constantly rewire — Arnold maps out cunning ways to introduce tiny behavioral changes, one or two at a time. And when she says tiny, she means TINY. Rather than tackle your diet by ransacking all the junk from your kitchen cabinets, simply identify one problem food or eating behavior and work with it.

Set a time for that new action to occur (every Wednesday at 9 o’clock, for example.) Allow that time to trigger the behavior so that, eventually, you do it without thinking. Thus, it becomes a habit. Or, pin the new behavior on to an already established habit (ex: I will always consult my *new* to-do list before I check email.) Dress your new behaviors in positive language. In other words, rather than obsesses over limits or restrictions (I CAN’T eat junk or candy), emphasize new permissions, privileges, and rewards (I CAN enjoy a healthy snack).

Writers who struggle to get in a bit of writing (especially on days when they actually have time for it but don’t seem to be able to make it happen) are sure to take away from this book many useful tips and tricks. Plus, it’s printed in a really big font, which means it is a quick read. Big font, small time, you might say.

“Lego” by Judit Klein.

Having read this book a couple of months ago, I can firmly attest that the processes seem to work. Breaking down my big, vaguely stated goals and working at them one action at a time was a bit like dumping out the Lego bin of my life’s dreams. But bit by bit, the pieces are fitting together and a strange new landscape…or, erm…a jet plane is beginning to take shape.

Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey

abbey_desertsolitaireThe perfect book for anyone feeling, of late, as though the barbarian hordes are besieging all that is sacred and precious.

Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire. New York: Ballantine, 1968. Print.

Genre: nonfiction (nature/politics…enviropolitico?)

Summary: Edward Abbey, a rebel-rousing UNM graduate, goes to work for the National Parks Service. He endures a year in Arches, Utah, where he struggles with the merciless scrape of desert heat, as well as his swelling misanthropy for tourists and park administrators who seem to nimbly defile the sensuous landscape at every turn.

Critique: Like Abbey himself, the writing and narrative within this text are wayward, willful, fluid, stubborn, and unconventional. First and foremost, the book is an ode to the outdoors. A long, luxurious love poem honoring geology, praising desolation, and admiring stark vistas.

Second, the book may also serve as one of the most engrossing horticultural guides you’ll ever read.

Finally, Solitaire may be one of the timeliest treatises you could read this year, as the NPS picks up up the diapers and debris following the massive, record-busting influx of visitors during its 2016 centennial celebration, despite the endemic budgetary strangleholds imposed by Congress which have produced massive infrastructural failures. But will there be National Parks to flock to in the coming years? There is plenty of reason to worry and doubt, given the most recent White House Administration appointments, which have included powerful figures who oppose the fundamental premise of “public lands in public hands,” who ignore the studies linking spiritual and psychological healing with regular exposure to wild lands, who instead subscribe piously to a religion of nature as a source of untapped economic pulp.

Have we been through territory like this before? Yes, says Abbey. And we survived with our Parks–a unique notion in the world when they were first protected for the enjoyment of all people now and in the future, regardless of income, gender, religion, political leaning. Will we, and our Parks, survive this unfolding predicament? On that, Abbey cannot rightly say (and not just because he died in 1989). Since Abbey’s time, the Parks have come to face a truly dire duo of fresh challenges: appealing to minorities and Generation App.

What Edward Abbey might say is that the disconnects these populations experience when they visit a National Park links to the very infrastructure designed to attract them–an infrastructure he vehemently opposed and actively obstructed. Roads. Scenic pull-overs. Clean, running water. Flushing toilets. In Abbey’s view, these conveniences prevent people from breaking past the surface of what it is to be in the wild and witness its jaw-dropping miracles and horrors. Our predilection with comfort inhibits our chance to be and feel exposed…at risk…immersed…swallowed…challenged…basically, alive.

Read this book and take from Abbey a view of what the Parks are and were; what they’ve lost and what they could be. Glean from his feral trompings through the needling canyons what it is to be an animal outdoors, your civilized skin eroding like the stone arches, your spirit expanding, fed fat on the eternal nutrients of sun and space. Read this book and take heart; the revolution will, at least, have campfires!

(Photo credit for the teetering rock: NPS/Neal Herbert.)