Notes From the Edges of Sleep and the Day After

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It was that fine velvety stillness which held my attention. No mechanical clangs or motors roaring, no ebullient voices ballooning in the darkness after bar closings. The crows had taken a hiatus, were asleep or perhaps frozen stiff on their perches after the evening’s steady snowfall. I peeked out the window once more: nothing but rapid accumulation of an almost florescent snow upon rooftops, fences, tree limbs, parked vehicles. A January night’s attire arrayed itself with grace. Nothing stirred amid the restful snow, or pounced on blowzy flakes as once my calico cat had zealously attempted.

But why was I thinking of feisty Mandy, she of snappish meows and fast claws, dead and gone for a decade? I didn’t miss her warmth at my blanketed feet since she hadn’t been allowed there due to ending up a nuisance, though I loved her. No, it was another sneaky thought from nowhere. I lay on my back, blankets pulled up to my chin. Why did I think of anything at this time of night? I ought to have been snoozing, traversing vaporous realms at the most or loosely tethered to a wakeful consciousness at the least.

It was way past two in the morning; I didn’t want to check again. I had had my usual herbal Sleepytime tea while watching some innocuous television, headed to bed to devour many pages of an engaging novel. Tried to think sleepy thoughts. Let the day’s work and play be put aside. Worries offered up to God as well as a few suggestions that might be helpful, then humble retractions and surrender once more.

Closed my eyes. Ignored familiar inroads of pain that crept from neck to shoulders to head to back. Visualized warmth and healing in each spot, fell toward restfulness. In thirty minutes: fully awake again. This time, heart skipping about as if deep darkness was the best time to change things up, do a little sidestep, try on a galloping jig and then a waltz. A long pause or two and a swing step. Be at ease, I counseled the muscle that drives this flesh, fuels this life.

But beyond the bed, the vibrant quietude of snow carried me first to blizzards of my Michigan childhood and youth. The snow houses, sledding, ice skating, tunneling into the depths, falling into sharp sweetness with a boisterous shout. All that force of beauty and opportunities for fun; the ways it shaped the flow and tenor of my life for sometimes five or six months of each year. It gave me fortitude, more room for imagination and pure happiness.

And I thought, too, of a time in the north country with my first husband, our children gallivanting in brilliant snowdrifts, the skittish and graceful deer living right alongside our lives. The wood stove tended all day and night to keep us warm enough. That last winter of complicated snowstorms and love, more snow and loss. As I tried to let sleep come, I greeted him somewhere, wherever he is since body failed. But why was this necessary to revisit? Because the snow is made of memories. A unique elegance, freedom; it smells and shimmers of wonder and sorrow.

Music came forward from somewhere far away inside my mind– kept awakening me with chords, clear and robust. Giant icicles used to shine at the windows of my parents’ home, the music house. That was then and this snow was now but they were superimposed as I lay there half-awake. Trees must have shivered, as just like childhood I felt their aliveness, my eyes closing tighter against seepage of sky through the blinds and that far away past. I hummed a melody almost recalled as it melded with a sudden wind. Chimes jangled on the balcony, sonorous, comforting.

Three forty-five a.m. I sighed, re-positioned, fluffed the pillows. Thought of Marc on the East coast after flying all day. Was he awake, too? Sleep is often more elusive in hotels. He would likely be at work already.

Wait, a few poetic lines floated across mind’s eye…the slight of a slivered moon left behind, a pale cascade of stars nudging my waking… I grabbed pen, slip of paper.

Flopped back down. My heart rat-a-tatted over and over– electrical messages, small circuitous interruptions. That prescience of shocking mortality. We are not only memories and dreamings. But I know to wait it out, breathe well. It was persistent, then passing as mercifully, I fell asleep for awhile.

That night was a winding road. Long, crammed with bits and pieces that entertained, annoyed, jolted, intrigued and even soothed as each moment leads to another unlike what is expected or needed.

I am not alone with such night voyaging. All who experience insomnia for any reason know how it goes: it starts to feel long and unreasonably temperamental, then to feel more like floating in ineffable space and finally it feels like nothing but weariness. That waiting for dawn. It can be survived if you are friendly with it, acknowledge it as a terribly stubborn guest, and behave as if it is not unexpected and not despised.

And I finally awakened to full light. Looked outside. The snow was more immense, lay in high mounds and cancelled grayness with its reflective light. A foot of it? (Fourteen inches in places, I heard later.) Where did all this come from (an Arctic front via Canada, likely) and why to this valley saturated with a cold rain each winter? This was our second real snow so far; it was by far the biggest. I got up but it was as if my body came forward first, my self came second while, in between, I wavered. Then, steadier on both feet, it was time to greet another day properly despite the specter of exhaustion after four hours of sleep.

The pain in my neck had dug in. My eyes burned with bleariness. A daughter asked to come by as she usually does, using our computer (hers being broken) to search for another job. I dressed, put on the teakettle and toasted a bagel. I had things to get done. And I longed to walk into the snow. Discomfort does not usually excuse me from a daily walk, though it can be tempting. It’s better life management to keep going. I find such good moments, an infusion of strength–and it’s a good work out. Fresh cold air was surely a perfect antidote to poor quality sleep and a tenacious soreness.

And so we did walk for over an hour, good daughter and I. We clomped about in our heavy boots and I took pictures. Neighbors and passersby were chatty; it was satisfying to compare pleasures (and inconveniences) of such a rare snowstorm. Contentment filled me during that hour.

But this is all I have to offer today. No philosophical musings or insightful anything. Just this bout with a trying companion, insomnia. A glimpse again at my resilient but touchy heart. A sharing of bounties from an energizing winter mosey. Pain lessened, heart rhythms more settled. I’m quite tired out. Happier.

Time to sleep again, I so hope, And for all who traverse that oddly mysterious landscape of stony nights when trying to snooze: I wish you good rest.

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Friday’s (Saturday’s) Quick Picks/ Poem: A Truer Life We’re Given

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And if we doubt,
doubters that we can be
despite our better parts,
we might listen to our
floundering apprentice souls

as they entreat us to turn,
find welcome not abandonment,
a levening of furious hurt into promise,
sweet recall of what we can forget:

Come closer, pilgrim,
enter finer, even holy realms
which reveal inside such drifting light
the true fullness of your soul

 

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Eyes to See

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The morning was bleaker than it had been in weeks. Fog had arrived in a villainous blur, then crept through the blinds. I glanced a second time at the clock, then yanked the quilt over my head. Tiredness clogged my brain; it begged for a longer time out. I drifted and awakened, drifted, awakened. I was trying to get comfortable on the tightrope between waking and dreaming, to put off the inevitability of daylight and its requisites.

Then dangerous thoughts erupted: No reason to get up; dreams are preferable; besides, you are getting older every second and what do you have to do? In fact, what is there to show for all your efforts up to this moment?  I enumerated chores and errands as well as writing goals ahead of me. They seemed insignificant. Why even write? Who actually cares? What are you DOING with your life? The taunts brought forth an overpowering urge to do…as little as possible. I peered between the blinds and found the fog in communion with the black hole of my ruminations.

Well, almost. I looked again. Billions of chilled molecules of water gathered pallid light and illuminated air from inside out. The fog being hovered, mysterious. I opened the window a half inch and smelled the delicious cold. Then vacated the warmth entirely.

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Another day to greet if not welcome with open arms. Enter here but be forewarned. Remnants of negative energy trailed my footsteps. I thought briefly of ODAP, the acronym for “Our Devilish Alcoholic Personalities”, widely known to those familiar with AA. How ODAP can sit on one’s shoulder, dispensing sabotaging directives.

Not going to a job every day can be sweet but harbors pitfalls. I have to be mindful of booby traps, like those in old jungle movies: if I am not paying attention I can end up dangling upside down, on my way to a snake hole. Other than accepting that there is no paycheck for my toil and isolation is more familiar than it has been for years, I am supposed to be having fun. And awakening with a lovely sense of few-and-far-between pressures. A lack of critical usefulness to which, finally, I am entitled. But time has shown me that, to paraphrase Pogo the possum, “I have met the enemy, and the enemy is me.” I forgot I knew that before. But I had been too busy working, with family and managing a household for forty-five years to dissect who I was every single day.

There are times in our lives when we need a full inspection, to root out the weak spots and shore up the mightier ones. In early recovery I was instructed to take a personal inventory daily to become truly honest with myself and others. It wasn’t easy but not so taxing; I still practice it in some form. I’ve long been enamored of introspection and self-analysis. Raised to be responsible for my actions, I knew how to track the good, not-so-good and unacceptable aspects of my life and personhood. In fact, I thought too much for my own good, so my mother noted. It was a luxury people could ill afford if they were engaged in achieving something. She was right in that, though a dreamer at heart, action made me happier. But I didn’t quite get it as a youth. Many years of being introspective to the point of burn-out clarified her statement. What she really meant was self-analysis can border on self-obsession, which comes to no good. Such as selfishness, or narcissism in therapeutic language. I didn’t want that.

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I thought of these things as I struggled through the internal charcoal palette of the morning. “Blue” it was not; blue implies a tinge of bitter-sweetness. This was not that. By noon I had concluded I had little good to offer and nothing decent I might yet accomplish. How can one get to my age and not have blazed trails I envisioned at sixteen? All this, partly resultant of a year of mini failures added to unforeseen challenges. Dissatisfaction with little successes. But it also came with the transition into another stage of life. And having way too much time alone. My head was a neighborhood I needed to vacate more often.

So I went to the park. There is almost nothing a good walk cannot alleviate and I walk daily. I took my camera and started to shoot, as usual. I felt peace elbow out the dis-ease. Creatures both human and otherwise cavorted and chattered. Rested and worked. I watched sunlight melt away fog and reveal colors of the Northwest in winter. There were kids practicing for track and couples arm in arm. Trees presided over all with stolid strength. Green shoots broke through dirt. Everywhere were stories of earth’s old ways and lives being lived.

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It may seem rudimentary but suddenly it came to me that I have these eyes to see. Not just to record, but really see life. They are one of numerous gifts of the body that can create and bridge whole worlds. Sensory data enters the brain’s alchemical laboratory and informs me. But my eyes also are a bridge from my own internal world–my particular ways of observing and responding–to the greater world with its moving complexity. What if, I thought, we are also given vision–and our other senses–in order to profoundly align us with all that is is just outside our skin and, thus, to save us from scrappy egos that meddle? To keep us closely attached to the earth we share, this planet we call home. So we can more often stay out of our own way. We can then forget our aloneness, recall our universality. Remember the compelling qualities of life that we  often want to divide and compartmentalize. Try to control. Personalize and dramatize when it isn’t remotely necessary.

I speculated what it would be like to have eyes that looked only inward and shuddered. The walk lasted over an hour and gratitude for sight increased. I wondered what it would be like if my vision one day fails me. I suppose other senses will come forward more, to the rescue. Our bodies are made to fit our needs. At least I have been blessed with basic operational requirements, if they’ve sometimes sputtered and paused.

Taking action is what I can do to change my life daily. Once more my vision scanned the horizon, allowing healthy escape and refreshment. It was opening a window when spiritual suffocation was threatening. My walks take me out of a cramped habitation–this mind that can stir up trouble–so I discover conduits to finer wonders again. With these eyes, I can see but what and how I perceive is a choice. And without fail, there is God within and without, my sure compass wherever I go. The path again clears.

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Being Let Loose

Yachats11-10 040“Do you always sit this still?” the physical therapist inquired. “Your head doesn’t move much at all and your shoulders seem frozen. You do walk off balance which is why you came. But you look…way too still somehow. How and why do you do that?” She sighed.

That took me aback. I laughed, a bit embarrassed. Nothing like being told that my muscles were knotted, my posture askew and my neck like a post.

“Well, I was paid to sit at attention for most of my counseling career, about twenty-five years. But now I’m not working for money. Maybe it’s time to loosen things up more.”

I explained that I had sat in an office chair every day. I always leaned forward a little, hands folded in my lap, every sensory avenue tuned to the client who sat before me. Attentive listening it is called. I became so adept at not influencing or distracting clients as they spoke, so calm in the midst of anger, fear, pain and grief, that I would lose sense of my own physicality. I was intent on discovering what their true energy was, where the maze of thoughts and feelings took us. They were demanding puzzles, but shared stories that broke open their insides. And mine, though quietly.

Intuitive responses arise partly from complex and minute informational bits that people share, less with words than with their bodies. What they do not say. I watched and heard. And after a time my feet might get tingly, my hands cold. Headaches geared up. Yawning could creep in by late afternoon; my brain could feel buzzy and empty at once. I realized my circulation wasn’t so great. In between clients, I would shake out the kinks and stretch a little, but  client turnaround time was often five minutes or less. Lunch hours were very short at the desk. For ten or more hours a day I paid attention. I was trained in the art of hearing and enjoyed listening deeply, responding with support and interventions. The rest of the ten to twelve-hour days was spent on documentation via computer.

It was the educational and therapy groups that saved me from becoming immobilized. I enjoy public speaking and sharing new ideas with others, so stood at ease before a crowded room, challenged and conversed with people. But the real bonus: I finally got to move like a human being. I felt free walking back and forth before the group, covering the chalkboard with diagrams and key points. I could let my hands speak; they flew about like happy birds.

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Still, I would return home desperate for a walk and a massage. Just simple relaxation. At eight thirty each night I would walk with my husband or alone if needed in the rain, wind, the sun setting or long set. Then I was returned to myself and my mind would slowly clear, become transparent. Awake but meditative.

Being quiet and still all those years did me no favors. It is against my nature, possibly against all human nature. Let me enter the woods and hike, indulge in long meandering walks. Let me do simple physical labor to ground me, loosen me. I just swept (with a regular broom) and tidied our lengthy sidewalk and parking area today because I wanted to. My landlord could do it and I know more leaves are falling. I felt enlivened and comfortable with the rhythm of sweeping. The crackling bright air filled my lungs. My mind rested and writing ideas came forward, prayers were released, worries made more powerless.

Like most kids, I grew up in full motion–running and swimming, ice skating and tobogganing, bicycling and skipping rope, playing volleyball. I danced every day. I swung from and climbed up trees. I drew pictures, acted, played cello and sang on stages. I was even a cheerleader. Never did I imagine I would sit still for a living. But as a youth when I had to keep my body quiet for, say, one of my father’s concerts, it felt unnatural, hard to pull off. I wanted to use every sense and breathe fully, be spontaneous in mind, spirit and flesh. Move.

It has been many months since I resigned from my last position. I am a woman without a title. Still I sit. I roll my shoulders up and back as I type. I write five to seven hours daily, five to six days a week. This, after all, is the main reason I am home: I have a core-deep, focused, lovely passion for writing. But I am learning once again that I need to get up, do a few exercises, turn on the music and dance around. When I have an anemic poem or a story that mocks me at every turn, outdoors I go. If I’m lucky I hike, but a turn around the neighborhood will do it.

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If it is really storming, then I get busy doing anything. Sometimes all it takes to get blood racing and brain recharging is a simple activity. Vacuuming, for instance, or the orderly folding of laundry.

Earlier this week I decided food would be useful; I tend to forget meals when I am absorbed in something. I pulled out the requisite items: lettuce, tomato, onion, bread, sliced turkey. Tried to shake off frustration about the short story I have revised several times. Realized I should clean the kitchen, so made a swipe or two. Heard my characters yakking in my head, giving directives to each other and me. I got out the mayo and Dijon mustard, then spread each on  bread. And then I put the bread together.

Meantime, I could clearly envision my story’s protagonist, Jasper, sitting on the hillside in his splintery Adirondack chair, gazing at the psychic artisan’s house below. The woman he finds on the far side of strange but likes a little, anyway. He is going to help her out, but how?

And then I figured it all out, what he would do next. Energized again, I took a big bite of my sandwich–Ha! Now for food!–and put it down again. I talked aloud to myself: “Well, that was absolute idiocy!”, with a swear word as exclamation point. It had nothing on it but lettuce and condiments. I had lost track of the physical world a few seconds… yet the very act of moving and doing something so pedestrian had shaken loose the next decent line of the story.

My number one therapeutic intervention to restart creative momentum is walking. Then I get somewhere fast inside my head. The rhythmic swing of legs and arms, heart pumping harder, taking in sounds and colorful sights, finding an array of scents: my mind is loosed. I hear words come alive within and they tell me things I did not know before. They travel from my soul to dodgy (aggressive coronary artery disease) but determined heart, to rapid-firing synapses and back again. I feel and become stronger, opened up, realigned in body and mind. Other creatures don’t think it all over; they just get into gear. So why do I deliberate each time?

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Many situations have been imprisoning in my life. We all know that dark corner feeling. There have been times I have felt like a hostage, emerging with scars and a jaded view. Others have enlightened me more than I imagined at the onset. But if our earth-bound sensory lives can damn us, they also can save us. Just as I must keep my spirit primed with thanksgiving and love of the Divine, I must also give my body opportunities to fully appreciate itself. We are each made all of one piece. We create from fullness and paucity, from expansiveness and the narrows of our lives. Our bodies need us to experience wonders and we need their wisdom. I am a person well acquainted with physical pain yet still I find it so.

And since I am not working for pay, next on my real life list is this: a couple of hours each Friday for a few weeks I will step far away from the desk. I am finally going to take flamenco classes. Flamenco is music and movement that shakes me up and shares life with me. I know there will be good stories and poems arising from this willingness to dance. I will let life and limb loosen more so I can journey deeper into its essence.

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Whatever Is This

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Sometimes a poem will come fully and clearly. It is startling, a spark from the subconscious or the vast peripheral consciousness. They are not always good poems but they still count. I was taken by this poem as I walked in the rain while darkness fell gently. It finished itself as I sat typing without thinking at my computer. It gave me a dreamy comfort and yet I felt alert, focused so I followed it as though a winding path. I decided not to edit it. I hope you will find something here that speaks to you. (Unfortunately, I can’t seem to get it to save in a format with paragraph breaks between every three lines just as it was written…If anyone can help, please let me know how to do that.)

Whatever  Is This

Whatever is still wears stillness as its skin.

Whatever moves finds energy uncoiling.

Whatever breathes seeks air, earth, fire, water.

Whatever cracks leaves the healing to itself.

Whatever sighs scatters petals on the wind.

Whatever falls intercedes for the beginning and end.

Whatever breaks truce barters with people.

Whatever feeds the world fills it with rust, gold, blood, dust.

Whatever lives in safety camps inside the soul.

Whatever maligns falls over the edge of heaven.

Whatever dreams disturbs science with intuition.

Whatever fades resurrects another beauty.

Whatever creates makes a loose harness for freedom.

Whatever enters the heart of power shakes fear from bones.

Whatever sings unleashes the medicine of love.

Whatever waits needs its own welcome.

Whatever knows loss enters the cellular dance.

Whatever hopes reflects a tear in the light.

Whatever seeks knows the source of all warmth.

Whatever opens disables the lock on the door.

Whatever misses wonder leaves without a backward glance.

Whatever surrenders solves the puzzle.

Whatever lives floats upon the beautiful river.

Whatever is most truly needed will answer your secret  prayer:

This.

Is.

The.

Way.

Home.

Copyright December 2012 Cynthia Guenther Richardson