Interconnected forms of solitude

I have been doing a lot of thinking about solitude. What is it about being alone that is so frightening? I had hoped to write a thoughtful post on the topic today, a reflection on the nature of solitude: others’ and my own…. But I am still stuck in the emotion – the visceral kick and groan of the emotion.

Things happened today while considering aloneness. First, I found a dead bird under my office window with no visible signs of trauma. The phone kept ringing all morning, but only static was on the other line when I’d answer. I was also very, very sleepy and it seemed like everything – stroking the cat, editing poems, cooking, yoga, working, driving, watering the plants – had a lull-whisper, a soporific effect. I walked through the day like Dreamtime – whip-tailed lizards of ideas slipped in, then disappeared behind shadows before I could discern their message.

What I gather from this is perhaps I need to be with solitude a little while longer before I dare to decipher its meaning. I am a novice in its presence, a new baby to the distance. I need to observe more. I need some time to know the stranger that resides here.

The Freedom of an Honest Life

“FOLLOW YOUR BELIEFS”
– A FORTUNE COOKIE

A fortune cookie saved my life. Well, perhaps not my life, but it certainly saved me from spending years stuck doing something I no longer (if ever) believed in.

I worked in fund development (fundraising) for a Catholic charity. This is fairly benign if you’re Catholic. I am not. In fact, I am a 100% pro-gay marriage, pro-choice (abortion and end of life), class-conscious eco-feminist. I don’t care if you make babies. In fact, I encourage you to remain child-free and help reduce the planet’s human load. More to this, I am not inclined to believe in a god that intervenes in our lives and elevates humans to superior animal status, giving us license to pillage whatever we want in the name of America, Allah or Free Market Capitalism. Believing what I do does not always make me everybody’s sweetheart, and certainly not in a neo-conservative state like Arizona, but it is the composition of these beliefs that define my values.

I am a person of faith. I have faith in the natural cycle. I have faith in the sun, the moon, seasons, community, birth and death. I never have to question their power or influence over me. I have faith in well-defined, actionable values. One of my values is tolerance for diverse thoughts and opinions. An action from this value is to curb my judgments.

Values are something we all like to talk about but very rarely understand. I know it was a huge wake-up call for me when someone asked me – in an interview a few years back – to define my values. Er, um, honesty, respect, selflessness… how many do you need again?

I struggled with listing my sincere values, and started to list those I felt the interviewer wanted to hear. My internal monitor censored my deepest values rooted in respect for ALL life, in protecting the land I love even if it means people lose jobs, in advocating for a nation of gardeners and artisans instead of mindless consumers.

Another thing I learned, other than how hard it is to succinctly define my values, is that there are values that evolve and mutate depending on context and application. For example, some values will differ if they are applied to my family as opposed to the world at large. (Insert the quote about “a foolish consistency…” here.) Some are very circumstantial, and some are meta-values that sweep over all aspects of who I am.

Not everyone shares the same values. I repeat, not everyone shares the same values. This may seem like a DUH statement, but I am surprised by how many of us pull one-size-fits-all values over us like an ill-fitting coat. My value to be responsible, for example, and to work hard, informed my faulty thought that “work is work” and “no one likes their job.” I grew up poor in rural America. To discuss one’s job as something that is both interesting and meaningful to some loftier cause is unheard of – no one talks about work unless it is the understood nod of how hard it is to get by. This background and worldview has led me into an accidental career in business, then marketing for for-profits, then into the Catholic charity. I told myself through each of these transitions that I can find my voice there, somewhere I will make a change. And, sometimes small changes were made in recycling procedures, ethical business principles, paper waste reduction, and opening minds and hearts about new ideas. I also met some like-minded coworkers who remain my friends today. However, the nagging feeling remained.

Ultimately, I found myself moving through the day feeling “off,” quietly resenting the coat I had put on. I believed, rather erroneously, that in order to survive this life, I had to simply shut up, keep my head down and get through. At home, my passions and ideas would butterfly into volunteerism, independent projects and being with the natural world, my sense of self restored. I felt the peace I had been seeking in the 40-60 hours each week of being insincere, untrue to my beliefs.

Great change is never gentle. It happens very quickly. The day I read the fortune, “FOLLOW YOUR BELIEFS,” my life changed. My values created this change, but so did circumstances beyond my control. This possible life wanted to be heard all along. It just took a cookie to get me to listen (and a kick in the butt from the universe).

Life is short. We all say it and connect to those tearful end-of-life stories about what matters most. But do we act? Or do we become those who have so many regrets? Values alone mean little without thoughtful, purposeful action. There is suffering, yes, and all paths present obstacles, but the path itself need not be the obstacle.

Now I choose carefully. I let my intuition decide, even when my ego wants to kick and scream. I choose paths that bring me back to what I love, in a way that contributes with honesty, heart and good, old-fashioned work.

If you had a cookie to open today, what would your fortune say?

Recognition

Each morning I am greeted by a family of cactus wrens that have taken up residence in the cholla near one of my garden beds. The fledglings have a particular interest in the herb bed because the drip line provides a sort of sprinkler system. I can imagine their delight on a day of intense heat to have the chance to cool off under the basil, where steady drops of water splash down. This particular side of the house is what I refer to as the Zen Garden as it is one of the few truly shady places in the xeriscaped yard. It’s common to find the neighborhood cats here, lounging on one of my recently planted beds of beets and greens (ahem!), also enjoying the fledglings. I suspect with a nefarious agenda in mind.

Spending time outside in the city affords few opportunities to catch sight of some of the larger wildlife I was used to seeing back East. I remember, while working for a nonprofit in Toronto, a part of the summer morning chores, just before unlocking the office, was to grab an old ladder and walk back to the parking lot, where masked rascals awaited rescuing. Our neighbor, a sports bar, used open garbage bins that invited nearly every raccoon in the nearby ravine for a tasty, free meal. Unfortunately, getting into the bin was a heck of a lot easier than getting out. And, during the summer months, when temps reached into the high 90s, this was a dangerous place to be stuck. Inevitably, upon making my way to the bins, there would be a few young raccoons waiting for me, paws upward, ready to cling to the lower rung, climb, plop, and scamper back to their ravine home.

Other occasions would allow me to come uncomfortably close to skunks, rats and the usual park-dwelling coyotes. (Oddly, I saw more coyotes while living in Toronto than I have in the desert.)

Since moving to Phoenix, my senses have had to become honed to tune in to less obvious species and the stories they have to share– the funny daredevils, the Gila woodpeckers, and how they enjoy a sip from the hummingbird feeders, despite the awkwardness of perching. The pugilistic thrashers and how they hop from self-designed hole to self-designed hole, looking for tasty bugs. The bats that seem less ominous against the desert skyline than in the crevices of bridges. Even the lizards that used to startle me have made their way into my morning observation and have me questioning whether I need to get rid of all the dreaded Bermuda grass, which provides them with shade and protection.

These companions of mine, whose lives are shorter and perhaps more precarious in comparison, are full of being. I am unsure if I need to worry about what life, theirs or mine, means as much as witnessing it each morning, honestly and without judgment. With a pure heart, they go about their day; I go about mine.

Poetics

Another stranger called the beloved sea

This first thing I noticed was his large face
and the way his eyes blinked with each word –

Give me your hand. Give me your hand. He pushed
until I gave him my hand and walked through

my door and into the world
of transparency.

It was silent and wet.
My dress pooled in the dew, and the horses swam

among us like dolphins.
Somehow, a sea rose up behind the hill

and my house became a lighthouse;
the goats became gulls.

A bone in snow illumined –
the moon gasped for air.

Years passed – my years –
and I grew smaller in this distance.

I remained without a family
to repair my slipped frame

or witness how slowly
my oak arms moved underwater.

In the blur,
I noticed other things

about him. He never ate. He did not sleep.
He had no body – but he must have had a body –

he must have … My questions
chilled me. My arms felt weak

until I became
another part of him.

A belly swelled
like the rolling wave.
I was also wave
and formless

space – I became
no one.

I should have known the bewildered son,
the way the tide comes

in … and

the sound of moving water
and breath. My breath.


© Aleah Sato
* first appeared in Ex Cathedra Literary Journal

Paying Attention – Nature’s Best Medicine

Today I indulged. I had one too many cups of dark roast coffee. I sat and talked, enjoying the comforts of friendship and air conditioning. I skipped my morning and evening yoga, and I ate lots of starchy food. With the exception of the good conversation, I can certainly feel my body’s discontent. My stomach is unhappy. I feel stiff and lazy. Skipping exercise and eating poorly immediately caused a physical reaction. It’s palpable, visceral–and didn’t take long for these unpleasant signs to emerge.

My ill feelings have me wondering how so many of us get into such desperate states of dis-ease. I mean, if I had such an immediate reaction to poor health choices, then I cannot assume I am alone, right? So, if we as Americans are making poor dietary and wellness choices, and obesity and lifestyle diseases plague us, I am inclined to believe we are simply disconnected. We are so disconnected, in fact, from our body’s signals that we don’t know what healthy feels like. We simply inoculate ourselves to pain and discomfort with numerous pain relievers and forms of escape.

We live outside of ourselves.

Psychologists call this disassociation. This dissociative state allows us to leave our pain — physical and psychological distress – until we deem it safe enough to return to a state of awareness. This disorder is often described as an affliction of people suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. In fact, disassociation seems quite common these days in pop psych speak. In my opinion, this has led the therapeutic community to believe that more people suffer from PTSD than perhaps actually do. Could PTSD be that easy to develop? It does seem believable that we live in such a violently voyeuristic culture we could all be PTSD sufferers. But I don’t think so.

Rather, I think our manner of living encourages escapism to the point of cultivating a type of pseudo -dissociative state. We encourage escape. We encourage mindless indulgence. We are fed vast amounts of information, but are we wiser for it, or is it simply stimulus? After a while, does the response stop and passive acceptance enter?

One of the fastest ways to get in touch with how we are feeling is by unplugging and disengaging from distractions. Meditation is a good vehicle for body knowledge. Prayer and self- reflection serve as modes of inner dialogue. The Buddhists ask, “What is this?” as a form of meditation and remaining in the moment when anxiety and fear arise.

Take an hour of your day and simply sit with yourself. Do a body scan.  Do you have a small sensation that something needs attention?

How do you really feel?
How are you… really? Answer with thought.