I wake up before my alarm, pick up the phone lying on the stack of unread books on the nightstand beside the bed to check the time. 5:30 AM. A streak of anxiety stabs from my solar plexus to my throat. While I have the phone in my hand, I click the icon that leads me to my email, run my thumb down the small glass screen, scanning the emails that have collected in the night: news headlines from The Guardian, The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Daily Briefing on Rights from the Southern Poverty Law Center. A dozen choices for bad news.
I zip past 50 spam messages. One friend has written. I scan the morning poem from the Poetry Foundation, then slow down to savor its words. A couple of students check in; one is sick, the other is flying to visit her mother. There are five emails with CAPITOL LETTER HEADLINES screaming for money for left wing causes. I tried to unsubscribe from these notices from the DNC but they wouldn’t let me. I stop my thumb.
I told myself I wouldn’t do this. I set my phone, face down on the unread stack of books beside my side of the bed. I close my eyes and try to visualize the northern lights, an image of freedom and expansiveness that emerged in a recent therapy session–those dancing green lights, a symbol of the free, unfettered love that’s been boxed up in my solar plexus for decades. Trying to grasp those lights now is like chasing after an elusive dream. “Don’t worry,” my therapist told me the other day, laughing. “You don’t need to remember what we do in here. It’s your subconscious mind that’s doing the work.”
On five consecutive Monday nights, I am teaching a class on self-care in the age of Trump. They say we teach what we need to learn, what we need to practice, what we need to work out, and that is surely true in this case. I am struggling, like most people around me, to maintain my equilibrium.
I slip out of bed, grab my laptop and head for the couch. I switch the WiFi icon off at the top of the screen and breathe a sigh of relief. I’ve given myself this early morning hour to be alone with my thoughts, to place my fingers on the keyboard and see what emerges.
It’s still dark outside. I’m sitting in my green flannel pajamas with images of purple Christmas tree farms on them. They were hand-me-downs from a student who traveled to Scotland with me; she couldn’t fit them in her suitcase on the way home and offered them to me. I said yes and slipped them in my bag. Now they’re my current winter-turning-to spring favorites, worn and soft and comforting. The top button on the shirt is missing. I keep thinking I should remove the green button from the bottom and sew it onto top where the gap is, but I’d have to find a needle and thread. And where in the hell would they be?
My feet are bare and crossed beneath me. I’m the only one up in our quiet house; Karyn is asleep, our kids long gone. It’s just the two of us now. Tiger, our elderly tom, whose fur is matted and oily with old age, is perched, purring, on the top edge of the couch on a curved furry pad, put there for his pleasure. He’s sleeping in front of the blasting heat from the wall heater, his favorite perch. Soon I will put a small plastic finger cot on my finger, squirt out 1 millimeter of thyroid medicine from a small thin plastic syringe, rub the ointment inside his ear. Tiger doesn’t seem to mind. And I like the ritual, that moment of being with our slowly dying cat, that moment of seeing him, really seeing him as a real living being in our care.
You see, I’m working hard to open my heart. To Tiger. To Karyn. To everyone around me. This is the last frontier for me. Well, maybe not the last frontier. There’s death beyond that–my death. That will be my final frontier. And aging, if I get to do that–whatever that may turn out to be.
But right now, the great opening before me is cracking open the heart I have guarded for a lifetime. The slow reaping of the spiritual work I’ve been doing for years. Slowly, I am witnessing the change. Reaping the fruits. Opening to connection. Tethering myself to my heart, from my heart, with my heart. Opening up to small daily joys.
In the Motion Theatre Intensive I attended with Nina Wise this past year, she had each of us teach something to the rest of our class. I taught a writing exercise–no surprise. A retired lawyer taught us about the different levels of courts in the federal system–the district courts, the appellate courts, the Supreme Court–and the role each of them might play as Trump’s travel bans wend their way through the courts. That was a great lesson. Another woman, a retired feminist art professor, brought in a painting and taught us how to look at art. But my favorite teacher, Leslie, a public school teacher in Oakland, taught us how to be cheerful.
She brought in a whole list of ideas, entertaining, insightful, humorous. Here’s the one I came away with: The human brain, Leslie told us, is wired to perseverate on the negative, on what’s wrong, on what’s threatened, on what’s in danger. That’s because we’re wired for survival. We fixate on the problems, on threats.
And when good things happen, we tend to move on quickly, to hop right over them.
One of Leslie’s instructions for increasing cheerfulness was to consciously extend the attention we pay to the small daily things that bring us pleasure–the angle of a leaf, that streak of red and gold across the sky, the soothing regularity of waves that just keep coming at the beach, kind words spoken or heard at a grocery store line, the perfect parking space that appeared when we needed it. That hug with a friend.
Just adding another 30 seconds or a minute to those experiences–ten breaths–Leslie told us, creates new neural pathways. Do this six times a day–for three minutes–and it increases our brain’s capacity for joy.
I’ve taken this on as my spiritual practice. Lingering longer when smelling the top of my grandson’s head, eating a delicious meal just a little bit slower, petting Tiger two strokes longer when I spread that dab of thyroid gel in his ear–actually taking the time to feel the sensation of his tacky fur beneath my fingers. Lingering in our warm bed for an extra minute. Savoring that extra 30 seconds chatting with my beloved in the morning before rolling out to start the day. Taking those extra moments to see her as beloved, rather than as a prop in my story. Actually taking in the loving human being in front of me.
There are dozens of opportunities every day to breathe into the good. Ten more breaths noticing the purple blossoms on my pathway to the beach. Ten more breaths talking to my daughter-in-law about parenting and life. Ten more breaths sitting on a damp bench at the ocean, my jeans slowly growing wet, watching surfers tumble into the surf and pop up again. Ten more breaths savoring the awe ricocheting throughout the room when a powerful piece of writing has been read.
Ten extra breaths every time there’s beauty, pleasure, peacefulness or awe. This is my practice.
Yet every day, there are dozens of reasons to go down the sinkhole. There is the literal sinkhole blossoming in our driveway. There was yesterday’s news that the place I have taught in for 15 years is closing down this spring. My social media person who has given notice and is moving on. All the parts of life that come undone and need repair. But those are normal hassles. Normal parts of being alive. But then there’s this other thing. The sucking thing that pulls at my vitality, drains my energy, darkens my mood.
Yesterday, it was the end of regulations to protect our online privacy. The day before it was the gutting of the EPA. The ruling that the word climate can’t be used by the department tasked with protecting our environment. The day before those days it was something else. Tomorrow, it will be three more horrors. Tomorrow, yet another wave. Don’t these people have children? Grandchildren? How can they disregard our planet’s future?
I’ve been putting myself on a news diet. Trying to find the sweet spot between putting my head in the sand and ignoring it because it’s too painful and flooding my system with horror until I go numb with shock and rage, drowning myself in an ever widening river of grief.
Some days, I read just a few news digests online. The New York Times. The Guardian. Vox News. The daily rights update from the Southern Poverty Law Center. My current favorite? The daily WTF, the daily What the Fuck? It lists 8 or 10 of the political headlines of the day with links to concise articles for further reading. It takes ten breaths to scan these headlines, the same ten breaths I could spend basking in the scent of forsythia, breathing in the night blooming jasmine. The same ten seconds I could spend rolling around on the floor, a prop in my granddaughter’s latest fantasy. “You be the mama bird, Laura. No, not like that. Like this.”
Every day, so many times every day, in fact, all day long, I choose where to put my attention. And yes, I am choosing to witness the demise of my country, the greed and cruelty emanating from the White House. I have committed to bear witness. To speak up. To pay attention. To say no. Yet at the same time, I am committed to increasing the number of my daily synapses devoted to joy. To gratitude. To beauty.
I am shining dancing northern lights onto my rusty shut down heart. And she is creaking open. That rusty heart of mine, disused, protected, forgotten is pinking up, beating her own particular syncopated rhythm. But her wake from slumber means she feels–my tender, growing, awakening heart feels it all. The latest horror. The sabotaging of the House investigation into links between Trump and the Russians. The purr under my hand as I touch Tiger’s oily fur, the demise of our social safety net, this one today, that one tomorrow–chop, chop, chop. Reading just one more luscious page of a delicious book. The gutting of Obama’s climate regulations. Listening to the hooting of an owl outside the living room window as the black night sky lifts and into a slow awakening of blue. Ivanka Trump moving into the White House without a security clearing. Noticing the green silky curtains, made with love by a long lost friend, an itinerant French puppeteer, edging our living room windows. Black girls disappearing from urban cities at alarming rates. Appreciating the warmth of my gifted Christmas tree pajamas, the shelter and welcome of our cozy home. Border agents demanding access to our phones, our laptops, our Facebook passwords. Say yes or lose your devices for weeks. The slow inexorable dawning of another day. A child patted down for two full minutes at the airport. Video of hands lingering on his groin, his thighs, his back, his shoulders, again and again and again. It took two minutes to watch it. I carried the boy with his blurred out face–and those hands groping him–with me all day.
There are two dozen shades of green outside my window. Muslims harassed at our borders every day. The perfect cup of tea. Companies bidding to build the wall. Eggs just the way I like them–creamy and loaded with veggies, sundried tomatoes and feta cheese. The Energy Department’s climate office banning use of the phrase “climate change.” The feeling of warmth on my skin, a cool breeze cooling my shoulders. Migrant workers in my town terrified. The perfect temperature. The perfect day.
This is what I am opening my heart to. This joy. This beauty. This horror. This assault on all I hold dear. This stillness. This new feeling of love pulsing through my body. The steady suck down into the dark underworld of human greed and depravity.
Perhaps it a question of capacity. My capacity to take all of it in. My capacity to feel the shock, the horror, the rage, the awe, the love, the gratitude, the grief, the empathy, the fear, the joy.
This is the world we are inhabiting. This is the world my heart is cracking open into, this world with its undertow of cold, cruel horror, sucking at my feet every single day. This world with exquisite beauty. This moment of promise and beauty. This moment of destruction.
What does it mean to be awake this morning? It means being awake to it all.