Searching for Sabbath

In preparing to lead the Coming Home retreat in November with my partner Karyn Bristol, I’ve been waking up in the early morning to reread one of my all-time favorite books: Sabbath by Wayne Muller. My copy is dog-eared and yellowed with many highlights, notes in the margins, the corners turned down. Every time I pick it up and read even a paragraph or two from its musty pages, my breath deepens and the tight places in my chest relax.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this weekend retreat. It has a very different focus than my other classes and workshops. It’s not about how to write a memoir or complete your novel—or how to pour out stories in a smooth, passionate flow on the page. It’s not about craft or even self-expression. It’s about reclaiming what we’ve given away in our acquiescence to the wild pace, outward focus, and busyness that characterizes so many of our lives.

Every aspect of the weekend will be designed to help us stop our momentum, remind us what truly matters, and achieve lost balance in our lives. And in the process, hopefully, rediscover our capacity for joy.

They say you always teach what you need to learn—and this is certainly the case for me here. When I look at all the individual things I’ve created, manifested, and brought to fruition—each of them individually has merit. One of the aspects of the Buddha’s eight-fold path is right livelihood, and my work definitely qualifies.

The work I do is good. It helps people express what’s deep inside them. It changes their lives. It builds community. It opens people’s hearts and heals them. It is deeply connected to my purpose and is a natural extension of who I am. Yet when all of those wonderful things are lined up together, when I look at them in the context of how I actually live my life, they keep me on a treadmill, catapulted from one wonderful, meaningful experience to the next. Because of course, each of these projects, classes or retreats require preparation, planning, promotion, and a million details that have to be tended.

When checking things off my to-do list is one of my greatest sources of pleasure, it’s certain something is wrong in my world.

This was the passage from Sabbath that stopped me in my tracks this morning:

“Sabbath requires surrender. If we only stop when we are finished with all our work, we will never stop—because our work is never completely done. With every accomplishment there arises a new responsibility. Every swept floor invites another sweeping, every child bathed invites another bathing. When all life moves in such cycles, what is ever finished? The sun goes round, the moon goes round, the tides and seasons go round, people are born and die, and when are we finished? If we refuse rest until we are finished, we will never rest until we die.

“Sabbath dissolves the artificial urgency of our days, because it liberates us from the need to be finished. The old wise, Sabbath says: Stop now. As the sun touches the horizon, take the hand off the plow, put down the phone, let the pen rest on the paper, turn off the computer, leave the mop in the bucket, and the car in the drive. There is no room for negotiation, no time to be seduced by the urgency of our responsibilities. We stop because there are forces larger than we that take care of the universe, and while our efforts are important, necessary, and useful, they are not (nor are we) indispensable. The galaxy will somehow manage without us for this hour, this day, and so we are invited—nay, commanded—to relax, and enjoy our relative unimportance, our humble place at the table in a very large world.”

I just love that.

Why I’m Taking the Summer Off

It’s been so many years since I’ve taken a summer vacation that I can’t remember the last time I took one. Why now, you might wonder. Why now, when my kids are almost launched—Eli heading off to college in August and Lizzy rounding the bend into 10th grade—am I finally taking a whole summer off? Why didn’t I do it when my kids were younger, when they really needed me? Why did I keep working? Keep writing? Keep producing? Keep teaching? Because I thought I had to. Because I was a breadwinner. Because I was afraid to stop. I didn’t know how to say no.

But now I must. I must say it loudly and repeatedly. I must keep saying it to myself and to everyone around me, but most especially to myself. Something in my midlife, sandwich generation, post-cancer, pre-empty nest brain and heart is screaming at me to take a break, to regroup, to stop my momentum. To find out who I am and who I am meant to be. Or to find out nothing of the sort—just to simply be.

Lately, my life has all been about momentum—I’ve been a slave to the forward thrust into the next thing and the next thing and the next. And in the process of bowing to that headlong drive into the future, I’ve lost so many of the precious things that give life value—time to walk, time to think, time to daydream, time to visit with friends, time to sort through piles, time to throw things away, time to lay around and read a book. Time to waste. Time to ponder. Time to feel. Time to burn my lists.

Beginner’s Mind

I have always loved to sing. Some of my earliest memories are of both my parents singing to me, and later, full-hearted singing on family car trips, learning my parents’ vast repertoire of old folk songs, while making up crazy verses to “The Deacon Went Down in the Cellar to Pray.” My dad was an instrumental music teacher and ran his own music studio: Davis Studios of Music and Dance. Stacks of band instruments—trumpets, accordions, flutes, trombones, clarinets, a saxophone, and even a tuba—sat under the Baby Grand in our living room. Music was everywhere.

My parents forced me to take piano lessons, but I hated to practice. After a few years, I quit. Unfortunately, I continued to be a musical dilettante. I played French Horn for a year in Junior High; then I quit that, too. As for singing, my carefree relationship to my voice ended when Mrs. Stout, my elementary school music teacher, listened to me belt out “My Country Tis of Thee,” pulled me aside and whispered, “Just mouth the words, dear.” I didn’t sing again for years.

Many of my writing students come to me reporting similar injuries. A journal that was discovered or read. A cruel comment by a teacher, a parent, a sibling. An English paper covered with red marks. A vicious critique of a vulnerable first draft. A stinging rejection letter. It doesn’t take much to squash our creative voices, and that goes for both singing and the written word. It takes a huge risk to try again after years—or even decades—of having our voices shut down.

The Initiation

I prostrated on the orange shag carpet, my face pressed into the long, polyester fibers. I responded to Mahatma Fakiranand, an Indian man with a shaved head and a face like a skull. “Yes,” I said in answer to his question. “I would cut my head off for Guru Maharaj Ji.”

I was fifteen. I had cut 10th grade and walked a mile to the Elberon train station. Caught the train to East Brunswick, New Jersey. Walked however many blocks it was to the premie house. How did I find it? I don’t remember. This was decades before smart phones and GPS, Mapquest and Google Earth. But somehow, I got there. I snuck out of the house, pretended to go to school. And I got on that train, determined to become a devotee of the living Satguru.

My brother was already a premie. After majoring in LSD and driving a used hearse around the University of Colorado, he had dropped out of college and gone to India, following the 14-year-old boy who promised we could realize God if we practiced the sacred path of satsang, service and meditation.

I was an unhappy hippie girl with huge casaba melon breasts, living with a mother I hated. Every night after work, she came home from her job as a school social worker, made dinner, and tried to talk to me, but I had already shut her out. I could feel her talons digging into my flesh. I was her last hope. My brother was gone. My father had abandoned us, moving to Esalen and later, San Francisco to find himself. The campuses were on fire. The world as we knew it was burning down. I was trapped at Long Branch High School and I wanted out. The ashram seemed like the way to go.


When I was on retreat last week, Bob Stahl introduced us to a Pali word, “samwayka.” It’s one of those words that exist in other languages to illustrate a concept that doesn’t exist in the English language. The Inuit, for instance, have 28 words for snow. There is the Yiddish phrase “shlemiel” which can be loosely translated as a clumsy, inept person, the kind of person who always spills his soup. There is the shlimazel, a person with constant bad luck, otherwise known as the one who always has soup spilled on him. Bob explained to us that the Pali word, “samwayka” means, “realizing that there is death,” a realization that leads to a sense of spiritual urgency.

A Few More Words on Silence

I have grown to love silence; I used to fear it.

I used to be afraid of myself. I was afraid to look in the mirror, to really look myself in the eye. I was afraid of what I would see there, some craziness, some demon, some terrible, awful, unbearable truth about the evil inside of me. As a young girl, I was obsessed with the movie The Bad Seed. And so when I walked past mirrors or ran a quick brush through my wavy, dirty blond hair, I would do it without really seeing. Without really looking. Because if I did, the bad seed in me would show itself and take possession of the good girl, carefully layered and lacquered against my outside.

Before my first silent retreat five years ago, I was grown, an adult, but still afraid. I was afraid that I could not face myself in silence for five days. What might arise if I was not busy, was not doing, was not filling my day with plans and lists? What if there were no loved ones, no children, no friends, no routines, no habitual ways to keep the underworld at bay? What I find in a world without telephones, emails, to-do lists, roles and responsibilities? Who would I be when all the trappings were taken away? When each identity—mother, daughter, partner, teacher, author, friend, doer–were taken away? Would there be a raving madwoman inside? A web of anxiety that I could not escape? Despair so deep and vast that I would never return?

Who I Used to Be

Alive, energetic, happy, hopeful. And then the world caved in and I hunkered down in my corner as best I could, laced up my boxing gloves and prepared to take on the world. But I was still a child and no amount of armor or helmets or big gloves could protect me. I sat alone on the bench girding myself for the next fight. Alone, alone, out in the rain, cold and alone. I walked through life doing my best to pretend I was human like everyone else, but always chilled to the bone with loneliness. I was a lone operator even though I pretended with the best of them.

Embracing the Undone

The class rosters I have not brought up to date. The brochure I have not printed. The bed I have not made. The clothes I have not folded and put away. The cancer memoir I have not begun. The toenails I did not clip. The education I never received and will never receive. The emails I have never read. The copies of The Sun that sit on my bedside table and ask to be read. (I have never read a single one. I read novels instead). The ring on the bathtub, the refrigerator that has not been cleaned in half a year. The office I used to work in, the one behind my house, the beautiful office with the Mexican tile floor and the wood stove for heat, the one with termites and no insulation, a high peaked ceiling and my father’s old bed up above to nap in. The windows all around looking out at a garden Karyn planted for me to enjoy. The desktop computer, fax machine, copier and printer, the two phones, one for home, one for business. The files of ex students, ex clients, aborted projects, books I edited years ago. Now the room is full of boxes and cobwebs, shelves full of the delitrous of selves I have left behind. 


 Looking through my notebook, I found this piece I wrote last November, after Ellen Bass and I spoke at an event celebrating the publication of the 20th anniversary edition of our book, The Courage to Heal. I was struck by the sense of harmony I had at the moment I wrote it. I don’t have that sense of equilibrium anymore…

Sometimes, like right now, I feel happy. This happiness has nothing to do with any event in my life. If is as if I am sitting in a place of equilibrium inside myself. I imagine a hammock stretched from the tip of my head to my toes and myself lounging on it easily. There is no tension in my body that wants to spring up and do the next thing. There is no longing for something I do not have. There is no desire to make anyone around me different than how they are. I am satisfied, no pleased, with what I am doing in my work and in my life and for the first time in a long time, the first time ever? I feel as if I am in balance.

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