The Return

The healing is in the return… – Sharon Salzberg

The sky is dark, but dozens of lampposts line the wide-open lot on the edge of Madrid, and their orange glow is filtering up through the windows of this borrowed apartment. I left the windows open in hopes of catching a breeze of cool September air from outside to help me sleep, but I only feel more awake. Exhausted, but awake. In the blue, almost-dark of this studio, I see the white body of my travel companion slink out from his hiding place underneath the bed, and I smile.

I’ve ridden 14 different planes in the last 2 and a half months, but I never realized just how brutal airports are to the senses until I was apologetically carrying my little familiar—my cat Hector—through his first 13 hours of beeping, clanging, jabbering, flushing, squealing air travel, feeling his heart pounding through the cage.

Having left him with a saintly foster mom when I first forayed into life abroad, I hadn’t even seen him in a year except to take him to the vet a few times this summer for pet passport purposes. He gave me the cold shoulder every time I came to pick him up, and I couldn’t blame him. This wasn’t exactly the ideal way to rekindle our friendship.

The last time I took Hector on a long trip–post-break up and chaotic apartment pack-up–my mother and I had to trap him to get him into his carrier for the 10-hour drive from New York to North Carolina. He didn’t come out of hiding for days after that one.

But he’s already checked the perimeter of our first spot together in Madrid, and now he puts his paws next to me on the edge of the bed and assesses the landscape here for a moment. I pat the space next to me and wiggle my fingers at him, wondering if he remembers our secret language. He hops up next to me and purrs.

I tear up with gratitude for being awake in this moment—to experience being forgiven. Our friendship resumes right where it left off.

Hector, as always, is one of my wisest teachers.

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I had been in a long distance relationship with myself, too, this past summer.

It was one of the most hectic seasons of my life so far. And so it isn’t jetlag alone that keeps me awake for the rest of this week and the next, it’s several months of Condensed, Unprocessed Adult Life Thoughts and Events—intensive work, unexpected death, visiting babies, visiting pregnant mommies, visiting old friends, visiting old family, visiting potential grad schools, considering career, considering debt, managing expectations, managing lots of long distance travel, oh, and getting married. Twice. The waves of what I had been surfing—barely—were now all thrumming through me.

My partner—now husband—arrives after his flight is delayed a couple days, and we slowly start to settle back into life in our own space after months of being guests hopping between the homes of others. This year couldn’t be more different from last year’s arrival in Madrid—the familiarity is comforting and lets us see how much we’ve learned in a short time. We’re cooking dinners in the evenings and buying things to take to our new apartment in a few days, and I’m almost enjoying myself.

But then something else familiar starts to happen.

I start to dread the space between eating dinner and being asleep—those quiet nighttime hours that should be the coziest and sweetest of the day when we let ourselves wind down and let go. These quiet hours are the ones most vulnerable to the drill of my anxiety, although it’s been several years since I’ve been in the throes of that. But now, here I am, going through the motions of settling in for the night, trying to ignore and avoid the baseless downward spiral opening up inside of me, the one whose walls echo “SOMETHING IS WRONG.” Which, as much as I hate it and try not to, prompts me to ask out loud, “Is everything okay? Everything is okay, right?”

And not only am I uncomfortable because I am anxious now, but I am indulging in that double-stuffed poison anyone with anxiety is sure to know and hate—Anxiety About Being Anxious.

It’s back! Oh God!

Hey, don’t worry, you have tools. You know what to do. You’ve managed this successfully before.

What if I don’t, though? What if the tools don’t work this time? What if the monster is stronger now?

In this moment, I have to just take it on faith—because it really doesn’t feel like it right now—that I can trust in the healing power of my own return to self.

Years ago, I read a passage in Edwin Bryant’s intro to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras that blew my mind. He said something to the effect of…You are not your thoughts. You are not your anxiety. The fact that you can observe your thoughts and anxieties shows that there is a part of you—a more powerful part—that is separate and more still.

That is the part with whom I must resume friendship.

So as I lay awake, I try to turn my thoughts away from building a case for my certain failure and doom and focus instead on making a plan of return.

The next morning, I am on my yoga mat. I had tried to keep up with my practice all summer, but I often wasn’t in charge of my own routine or my own space, which means I’d slipped. Food, too, was more haphazard, and my “second brain”—my gut—had certainly suffered from the junk I had scrounged up in airports and in moments of stress. And though I sometimes sat down to meditate, my mind had been a hurricane of travel and wedding plans. At the beginning of the summer, I had decided to be gentle with myself given all I had on my plate—that was necessary—but now it is time to come back.

I thought when I left Spain to spend several months at home with my family that I’d have lots of time for reflection and writing about Home and Being Back Home. I didn’t. And while Madrid itself doesn’t feel like Home per se–while Home doesn’t feel like a place at all these days–this city is another place I am finding home.

The writer Thomas Wolfe famously says “you can’t go home again,” and while I get what he’s aiming at, I think we don’t even fully know Home until we leave and return to it.

After a week of eating the foods my body likes, moving in time with my breath each morning, and finding some time to sit quietly, after giving myself time to reflect and then giving myself time to think of nothing, I sit down one morning and feel the ground beneath me. I am able to relax my stomach and feel the ripples of my mind smooth themselves out.

Om. I think to myself. Home.

And I’m a little giddy with the surprise that it worked. Again. It’s all so deceptively obvious and simple! And yet I’m sleeping again, and I’m feeling more steady each day.

So while I could beat myself up for falling out of practice in the first place, while I could make my long absence from writing to you, dear reader, into a story about my own inadequacy, I find it’s much more reasonable to celebrate homecoming.

This is the work of our lives, isn’t it?

Change is a given. The ball doesn’t stay in the net, no. We practice again and again—watching our aim, our form, our thoughts, from every angle, at every speed, moving and standing still, watching the arc, bouncing back, trying again. Change is a given. This is the work. Coming back to what matters, coming back to focus, coming back to the arms of those who love us, coming back to balance, coming back to connection, coming back to this moment, coming back to this breath.

And home isn’t ever exactly the same—that’s the point.

The look and the feel of it changes as we do in the turning and returning. (And thank goodness it’s so!)

But maybe this is okay because the magic doesn’t lie in the destination itself.

Maybe that’s why, as Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg says, “The healing is in the return, not in never having wandered.”

For a little human who struggles with uncertainty and doubt in a world that feels increasingly chaotic, what a gift it is to find, again, that I can return. Is there any more essential longing or joy than to find and come Home?

Where do you find the Home you long for, dear reader? How long has it been since your last return?

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A Well Spell for After a Dry Time

Are you ready?
If you are unsure, here are some clues:
   You may be experiencing a hunger pang above the stomach,
      a heartbeat lurching forward,
      a tug at the corner of your eye
      accompanied by a whisper saying,
      “Psst! Hey kid, what’s that over there?”
      an unheard song settling in around the ears
      like a ringed spacecraft whirring as it lands in the fog.
Are you ready?
Don't put it off
Let it wake you in the quiet hours of the morning--
(whatever time of day that visits you)
let it get you out of bed. 
Let the flashlight of your mind’s eye click on.
Hear the crackle of grass underfoot
as you approach the well you just knew to be spent dry.
Put your hands on the stone wall around it
--don’t drop your light!—-
Remember this place?
Is it a solid circle in your history? Is it new to you?
Can you feel the handprints of others
   who have passed by?
Don’t linger too long at the edge, dear,
this is no moment for overthinking.
Just lean over and feel the cool air of the unknown
   breathing up to meet you—
   to get inside of you.
Now is the moment for feeling the quiver in your gut
   and wiggling your foot over the abyss.
Let your toes find the top rung of the ladder leaning nearby.
Steady. Now—
rung by rung, ease on down.
The dim light of the known world in a spot above you will remain
   even when it grows smaller.
You don’t need that flashlight here, you can feel your way,
   step by step, learning
      the pictures your mind plays out on the dark walls…
      the vibrations of your movements on the thing holding you up…
      the hum at the edges of the echoes of your breath…
      the scent of the wet earth stories closer and closer…
      the taste of the thrill in your own tongue…
      the still presence of the things you just know
        without knowing how you know…
until your foot hits water.
First, make a cup of your hands and take a drink
   that goes all the way down.
That’s enough for now.
You don’t get to stay here in this underworld of dreams,
   though you may now be falling in love with
     the visions you see on the walls around you,
     the way the rippling water plays with
         the quiet music living in this chamber.
   though you may be tempted to gulp down the lot of it—
     suddenly realizing how parched you’ve been…
Now. Steady.
--Don't drop your light!--
Find the bucket.
Yeah, the one you threw down here—
   however long ago that was when you
      cut the rope and cursed
         and listened for it to clatter to the bottom empty.
         It did clatter…didn’t it?
         You were so sure there was nothing left...
Find the bucket in one piece, hold on tight, and start your climb.
Watch the circle of the shared world grow to meet you again.
When you reach the opening, find a length of new rope,
   and wind it at the crank.
   This, too, is part of the trip.
Tie your bucket to the end.
See it swing like a bell
   announcing where you’ve been
   and that here, again, you have a true and useful wealth to share.

It’s Not Too Late to Be an April Fool

I’m no prankster. I’m no good at lying and I’m too prone to guilt and anxiety to be very good at playing tricks on people. I’m much more likely to be the fool.

But this year I realized what an important holiday April Fool’s Day can be.

This year on April 1st, I stood in a circle with a bunch of strangers in a bare room in the Lavapiés neighborhood in Madrid.

“Now,” said our bespectacled leader in his British accent. “Introduce yourself to the circle, and tell everyone how stupid you are. Say your name, and these words: ‘and I am very stupid.’” We nodded gravely and began.

“My name is Sarah. And I am very stupid.”

“Yes,” said the leader. “We can see that.” Continue reading

Of Scrambled Brains and Runaway Trains

This blog post is late. Now, I doubt any of you have been sitting by your computers with your pocket watch out, clucking your tongue, BUT JUST IN CASE YOU HAVE, I want you to know that this tardiness is not for lack of writing. It’s not for lack of sitting still and being quiet and searching and asking unseen helpers for guidance.

But, as I mentioned before, I think the current political/media climate is doing something to our brains. At least I know it’s doing something to mine. Continue reading

A Spell for Unclogging the Works

I’ve been thinking a lot in the last few weeks about unfinished business. I’ve been toying with the idea of writing an essay about being on the other side of the anguish I used to feel at having nothing to show for myself except the shoeboxes of poems written on scraps of paper, shelves of completed journals, 100 pages of an unfinished novel, a one-woman show only ever roughly shown to a couple of friends, another one-woman show that would never see the light of day, 250 pages of a memoir I couldn’t bring myself to edit, and gawd knows how many little essays and short stories that would never be loved by anyone but me.

I’m not writing that essay today. Today I’m remembering how it feels to wander around feeling like my inner gears are all gummed up. Continue reading

Attempting to Land

This pesky vision keeps popping into my head: it’s a little house at nighttime. Its outer walls look blue in the twilight, but they might be any color. The windows are yellow with light from within. Around the house there is space and sweet smelling grass and trees; inside the house there are teacups and a fireplace. From here, it is the picture of stillness and security.

“You have to let this mopey energy go,” my partner calls to me from across our studio apartment. I groan to let him know I know he’s right, but I roll over on the bed to face the wall instead of getting up. Continue reading

Prayers for Dark Days

Here we are facing the darkest days of the year. The city of Madrid festooned its streets with twinkle lights in early November, but no one turned them on until the 25th. This was a pretty good trick; it had me looking forward to the even longer nights ahead when the streets would feel extra magical. How clever that we, as a culture, answer our needs for anticipation and celebration in the darkness, even if we do it almost by accident, even if we forget why we started lighting lights in the first place. Continue reading

A Loving Kick in the Pants for When You Don’t Have a Choice

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been battling hopelessness and paralysis lately. I am grateful for the internet mechanisms that have the potential to make us the most informed populace in the history of our civilization, but unfortunately, I haven’t personally acquired the level of spiritual evolution to know how to deal with all of the information I receive everyday. Continue reading

How to Tell When You Get What You’re Asking For

Afternoon, October 14, 2016: My partner and I are rounding the bend on week 3 of a grueling apartment hunt in Madrid. We’ve been living out of suitcases for months already; we’ve been sick, food poisoned, and adjusting to new jobs; we’ve raced through the streets of this unfamiliar city every day this week to beat our steep competition to available apartments. On this day, we’ve seen 2 lackluster options, which we agreed to take if they’ll have us. Continue reading