Woman hikingWild, a film about a young woman’s transformational hike, is causing a fair-sized buzz here in Oregon. Forget the Academy Awards nominations in the actress categories. The author of the book, Cheryl Strayed, is one of us. In her real-life story, portrayed by Reese Witherspoon in the film, she may be ill-prepared and bumbling, but she’s determined. And real. When she’s finally able to lift her ponderous pack at the beginning of the film, it’s somehow familiar.  We recognize the determination we can all access when we must bear the unbearable. She’s a pin-up woman for authentic courage, and the local backdoor – from the Pacific Crest trail to the Bridge of the Gods – defines our sense of place.

But it’s Cheryl’s unassuming-yet-profoundly-deep writer self that has drawn me to learn from her as a memoirist and a writer. After spending a week last summer in a retreat that she led, my writing became more honest and gritty. The rainbows and ponies all but disappeared.  And I continue to feel the draw to memoir, fed by brave writers everywhere as I piece away at telling my own life tales of trauma and healing, my own ongoing journey of transformation.

Last week Strayed spoke to an overflowing audience of thousands here in my medium-sized college town.  Her honesty packs a wallop with a whole lot of people, it seems. She was full of anecdotes and good spirits, as usual. And a bit starry-eyed from the Hollywood attention and it’s deeper power of healing below the buzz. She shared a wealth of healing moments and metaphors within the story and the film.

She rolled her eyes at the relief of reviewers who loved Witherspoon for portraying a “not nice” woman on screen. “I think I was nice all along,” she grinned. “But what I learned from the journey, which was a journey of transformation, in the end, was not the quick “aha!” of the usual Hollywood solution. I wanted to portray what was real for me.”

 “I learned what transformation looks like: one foot in front of the other. A gradual and ordinary, gentle sense of acceptance.

It’s learning to accept what’s true. That what’s true is true. It’s an incredibly radical thing. I don’t want it to be true…that I have to live without my mother. But I will. And I can do it well.”

And this is why I love Cheryl Strayed and the message of her memoir Wild.

Her burdens, so different from those I carry, are also mine.  And her growing understanding about what is true…really, matches my own. Really.

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Footstep To learn a poem by heart is to feel it in my body. To learn a poem by heart is to live with it in my pocket. I’ve long been a fan of Kim Rosen’s book Saved by a Poem. For a time I forgot how it feels to stay close to my own marrow with a poem as my guide.

But sometime a couple of months ago, Irene, one of my beloved yoga teachers, read a David Whyte poem I’d never heard before. (Wonder of wonders!)

And I was hooked. I found it. Tucked it in my bag. Took it with me to the hospital before my knee replacement surgery. For awhile afterwards my brain wasn’t hanging on to words very well. So I read it. A lot.

It felt like it was written solely (or soul-y) for me. It’s my constant companion in Physical Rehab, for reasons that are immediately obvious. But it has also become my heart’s mantra. Start close in.

And so I offer it to you. From the poet’s heart to my heart. To yours:

Start Close In

Start close in,

don’t take the second step

or the third,

start with the first

thing

close in,

the step

you don’t want to take.

Start with

the ground

you know,

the pale ground

beneath your feet,

your own

way of starting

the conversation.

Start with your own

question,

give up on other

people’s questions,

don’t let them

smother something

simple.

To find

another’s voice,

follow

your own voice,

wait until

that voice

becomes a

private ear

listening

to another.

Start right now

take a small step

you can call your own

don’t follow

someone else’s

heroics, be humble

and focused,

start close in,

don’t mistake

that other

for your own.

Start close in,

don’t take

the second step

or the third,

start with the first

thing

close in,

the step

you don’t want to take.

~David Whyte, River Flow: New and Selected Poems

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When Liminal Time Meets Technology

January 6, 2015 Confusion to Clarity

It’s Epiphany morning. Here’s what I wrote at earliest light, following my purest intentions and my personal tradition of defining Epiphany as a time-out-of-time. Just before a tiny techno glitch grabbed me and shook me by the heels:

I love this liminal time. The time between dark and light. I resist electricity and grope my way by candlelight before meditating each morning.

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Major Gratitude for Shelter from the Storm

December 16, 2014 Body or Aging

What’s the difference between major surgery and minor surgery? I’m at a special pre-op session led by the hospital physical therapist. I had no idea. Didn’t care. Hospitals aren’t my thing. I just wanted to get this knee replacement over with without breaking stride in my full life. I know. I missed the irony at that moment, but I get it now. I get the punch line to the joke, too. Minor surgery is someone else’s. Major surgery is mine.

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Navigating the Sacred Spiral Path

November 19, 2014 Confusion to Clarity

I’m traveling with my friend Siri, she who is the little sister of Garmin and the daughter of Mapquest, the maker of all directions. Sometimes when I believe her, we go straight from Point A to Point B in the most efficient manner. And sometimes I end up making three left turns when I wanted to go right…or entering a freeway to go to another exit altogether, only to get off and find that I was where I wanted to go just before I got on the freeway in the first place.

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Wise in This Lifetime

November 11, 2014 Identity

Last week I made a lovely connection with a young woman by surprise. We were participating in an event where the leader requested my very least favorite group exercise: gazing in the eyes of a stranger.

I realized it would be far easier to drop my opinion and see what happened than to keep my story. As it turned out …(drum roll)…

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Slow-Mo Life in Mid-Mo

November 4, 2014 Fall

Last week I made a cross-country plane trek to visit my family in Mid-Missouri. It’s nearly impossible for me to make the trip without leaping into high gear. From the details of preparation beforehand to shuffling bags from car to fight to shuttle, by the time I arrive at my mother’s “gracious adult retirement center,” I leave skid marks.

And then I’m there. With my mother and about a hundred other folks in their eighties and nineties. At first it feels like I’m moving underwater or become a character in a slow motion movie. My mind leaps and bucks at being so tethered. It seeks a job.

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The Last Blast of Summer (or of Anything)

October 7, 2014 Body or Aging

It’s October. Last week I built fires in the woodstove to take the nip out of the early mornings. And then the last few days, here it is. Indian Summer. Temperatures in the eighties, hawks soaring above in the balmy breeze. The sun offers its light on a slant, making it feel even more stunning and precious.

And how very precious it is, this Last Blast of Summer. Called by different names in as many cultures, humans have long celebrated this brief but intense return of the warmth of the growing season.

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A Mind-Clearing Habit

September 30, 2014 Confusion to Clarity

I have a habit of throat clearing. It seems there’s often a froggy sensation that simply must be cleared. Until the other day, I’d never thought of the possibility of clearing other parts of the body…or the psyche, at least in any kind of routine way.

An idea came up last week when we co-hosted a couple of amazing musicians. Their names are Gina Sala and Daniel Paul. Both are highly respected for kirtan, a kind of meditative music most people associate with yoga classes. Kirtan is sometimes described as “yoga for the voice.”

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Salmon, Autumn and a Return to the Wild

September 23, 2014 Fall

A small, hopeful group is gathered here in anticipation of the event. Indian summer, and we’re poised over the impossibly picturesque mountain stream, cascading and rivuleting and pirouetting downhill.

Each of us has our own opinion about what we’re waiting for. All we know is that it’s called a Salmon Release, and each of us has a vague idea about what that means. And it’s an hour late.

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Morning Ritual: Rinse and Repeat

September 2, 2014 Noticing

6:30 a.m. Last day of August. My favorite: time of day, time of year, spot on the planet. Most early mornings are spent in silence and solitude. These moments are improved by the beauty that is summer. I watch from my garden deck overlooking the oak savannah as a buttery sunlit field gradually spreads over the meadow. There is deep peace in this little spot of glory. Deep gratitude finds a similar spot in the center of my body.

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My Inner Slacker vs. My Self-Improvement Junkie

August 19, 2014 Radical Kindness

This has been the perfect season for my highly competitive inner slacker. I’ve put up my feet and sipped ice beverages with the best of them. “Manana” has become my favorite word. All was good until I noticed that September is sneaking up behind me. And now Slacker Sue and Serious Susan have come to a face-off.

I sit right now in the mountains, savoring the summer air, listening to the nearby creek. I want to write about the stuff that folks from my home state Oregon are known for. Boring old Nature and mountains and beaches and stuff like that. The stuff of life.

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The Purpose of Life

July 31, 2014 Noticing

What All Animals but Man Know is that the Purpose of Life is to Enjoy It. -~Samuel Butler.

This bittersweet moment arrives every summer. The calendar flips and we’re in August. Not yet! We cry. There’s another month until Labor Day.

Some of us (as in me) wear blinders to the darker fall colors and school supplies subtly reminding us of what’s coming.

And yet. (And this is important): Fall is not here yet.

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The Grace of the Sea Stars

July 22, 2014 Body or Aging

Sea Star is the name of a watercolor in my office, painted by a friend years ago when she was traveling in India. She was on the beach in Goa watching the sea when a local woman, arms full of colorful, dancing scarves, swept up to her: “Sea Star, You want to buy? “ It took her a minute to realize that the woman was calling her “sister,” not selling her sea stars or starfish. Sea stars, or “sisters,” my dear women friends, have held me in kindness, given me tea and sympathy and laughter my whole life. The painting is a vivid reminder of the strength of this tribe of love.

And then there are the other Sea Stars, the variegated, orange and purple creatures of the sea that are also called starfish.

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A Burn Center and a Kind Universe

July 1, 2014 Confusion to Clarity

Einstein famously said that the most important decision we can make as humans is whether or not the universe is kind. As I’ve practiced Positive Paranoia in my life, I’ve looked for evidence of a kind universe for the last forty years. Based on lots of evidence, my own jury has pretty much already decided. But my mind is still open to new proof.

A few years ago my son awakened in the night with his bed on fire. He got out alive, even though the Burn Center doctor said he shouldn’t have awakened because of lack of oxygen to the brain.

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Positive Paranoia

June 24, 2014 Confusion to Clarity

1975. I’m 26 years old and my life is just what I always dreamed it would be, yet I’m raw and desperate. I’ve achieved all the things I set out to do: travel, happy marriage, a meaningful job. I’ve somehow proved myself Successful in conventional ways and unconventional ways, taking on all the tasks of being an acceptable member of the Counterculture of the time. And then, without knowing why, I hit a dead end.

It happens in a moment. I’m walking down the street and I suddenly feel flat and hollow inside. Not there. It seems like a dead end: there’s no exit in sight. I’m deeply scared, and my bed seems like the best refuge.

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To Life As It Is

June 17, 2014 Power of Connection

Only a few weeks ago I saw myself as a Recovering Rushaholic. I was experiencing a few days of peace and a deep sense of optimism. Just as the peaceful and hopeful and reflective Memorial Day holiday was ending, I pulled together my travel stuff, drove a couple of hours to an early flight, flew into the Heartland, drove another three hours, and spent a week in the muddle of family, caregiving, loving and experiencing losses first hand. My speed picked up. There was so much to do, to solve, and only a week to do it! By the time I capped the trip off with two doctors’ appointments and a twelve-hour reverse journey, I was past rushing. It’s taken three days for all my cells to return home. They seem to take longer than the luggage.

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Rushaholic Recovery: An Unbecoming Tale

May 13, 2014 Identity

It’s been years now since I officially retired from my first career as a teacher. During most of these 25 years all the roles of life converged: Teacher (over 150 teens a day), Mother, Daughter and Sister in a family continually in crisis. Toward the end I also wore the hats of Author and Speaker, with a new book out (and that “baby” to raise).
I know. Cray cray. You can look it up in your urban dictionary. It’s a word for that means taking crazy to a whole new level. Times two.

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Deep Spring

May 7, 2014 Noticing

At my cabin in the mountains there are many deep springs. As in deep pools of water bubbling up from below, with temperatures ranging from cool to dangerous. The water below ground is visible because the mantle of the Earth is a little thinner here. Even though I know where the springs are, they’re always somehow a bit of a surprise, a catching of breath, a tender mercy of heat on a snow day or chill in a heat wave.

Since I love playing with words, I’m thinking of Spring (the season), in the same way. Here I was, trudging through the mud and rain, and I come upon a clearing. A deep pool. Not too cold, not too hot, a blessing of refreshment and inspiration.

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The Daylight Bloom of Night’s Dreams

April 8, 2014 Confusion to Clarity

I’m a dreamer, and I respect (and sometimes remember) my dreams, in all their vivid and jumbled details. I made it a hobby more than thirty years ago to study them, at one time logging three or four dreams a night for several months. This has offered a window into the subtle realms of healing. From time to time, I delve deeply into the symbols and the details. This is great entertainment, but often there’s way much TMI to decode or recall. Over time I’ve found reason to trust the process, which is beneath and beyond what my conscious mind can grasp.

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