evanescent

Until this moment there had been no sound of a dancing, sparkling stream: not yesterday, or the day before, or even weeks before. Then out of nowhere, I heard the startling sound of rushing water gurgling unfettered. Incongruous, it sang from beyond the shady green sliver of muddy lawn behind our house. Usually, I went about the day’s chores accompanied only by the slosh of the dishwasher and the whir of the air conditioning.

Until now, on this languorous hot spring day heavy with aching nostalgia. We were homesick for where we recently moved from and didn’t know for sure where we would go next. Then came this flash of brilliance: more than swiftly flowing water, more like magic unleashed from some mysterious provenance.

The shallow creek bed strewn with leaves had not shown a drop of moisture since we moved into the tattered rental home at the top of an ordinary suburban street. A house remarkable only because of its perch on a beautiful mountainside.  Steep and meandering, the creek bed had, in fact, become almost invisible in the shadows under the cottonwoods and willows that bordered our backyard. I wandered out onto the back step transfixed by the music of the stream mingled with the shrieks of children . . . joyously distracted children: laughing, splashing, chattering, released from the mundane heat and lethargy of a late spring afternoon. 

My children, stirred from heat induced drowsiness,  instinctively waded into the water and with the plentiful creek stones, began building dams above crystal pools, and grottos amidst crenelated castles. Smooth round, flattened, and egg-shaped stones which had spent eons being shaped under the sylvan hand of snow melt dripping from mountain peaks and ledges and coalescing among the springs and ravines above our mountainside home. Noisy freshets, carrying a  sweet unforced joy, gained momentum tumbled down the mountain unrestrained and were unleashed in our back yard. But unleashed from where exactly? Where had it been imprisoned? Why did it hide until this rapturous moment when it burst forth at our doorstep?    

We barely questioned the source for being absorbed by all the avenues of play and delight that having our own enchanted stream presented. And we were enchanted: by the sound of water on stone, by the slick squish of mud between our toes, and the bracing baptism of muddy feet in the ankle-deep freezing water. Imaginations were suddenly awakened to dreams unfettered on what had seemed a dead end day.

Later, when the magic disappeared,  I suspected that some demand of yearly maintenance stopped the normal diversion of water into the more civilized irrigation canal that bordered the subdivision. And thus, for a brief time, liberated the water from being carried neatly, well-behaved, and on schedule to the farms and gardens below unleashing it into its ancient wild courses. Which unleashed the children and I from a spate of listlessness for a few quixotic days.

It was a brief flash of enigmatic fun. As small as our postage stamp yard but as large, and splendid as the snow-capped peaks above us. When the water abruptly stopped flowing, the tragedy was so poignant we just shrugged it off so as not to feel the loss. We were between permanent homes and couldn’t absorb another drop of sadness. Later, I reflected on the joy of those few days and marked them as important, a shimmering family memory. Reflecting back is useful, but there is a skill less common and deeply quenching to our rushed souls:  slowing down this moment and sensing its iridescence, savoring the rush of joy from common occurrences that are a wild privilege in our neatly channeled lives.

Too often I have been missing from some of the most important moments of my life. Much later, they reappear to remind me that there is extraordinary magic that unexpectedly comes not from grand events or spectacularly rendered achievement, but from gleams that can be lost in the blink of an eye. A more attuned mind might immediately see such moments shine in faceted brilliance. A testament to the of the sorcery of small things.

 

THE ENDLESS GRIP

Certainly you have experienced this feeling. If you are human, if you are equipped with a searching and hungry ego (and even if you think you aren’t– but then you’d be lying to yourself). Surely, if you have lived in society and not in a monastery your whole life, you have been discomfited in this way. An irritating seed of ambition niggles at your psyche like a raspberry pip in your teeth which your tongue can’t leave alone. This sprouting ambition, nebulous, nameless at first, doesn’t have a specific target, just the desire to achieve something not just remarkable but unlikely. Spurning more natural, inborn talents, this naive seed of ego casts about for a more remote even impossible option for greatness: an Everest, an Olympic Medal, or perhaps just breaking 100 in the game of golf.

In the summer of 2008, after a battle with cancer, as I labored to regain my physical strength, and vent the fighting spirit that cancer engenders, my husband, Ralph, took me golfing at Palmer Golf Course, Palmer Alaska. Strangely, in spite of the briefest of seasons for lush fairways and velvet putting greens, golf is a highly popular pastime in Alaska. According to the sales person who ushered me through the aisles of tees, gloves, hats, and golf shoes one Saturday, the Sports Authority in Anchorage is one of the chain’s highest sellers of golf equipment. With the long summer hours of daylight, Alaskans have the luxury of tee times well into the evening hours.

In pictures of those first few rounds, I look gaunt, slightly hunched over, a bundle of skin and bones sitting in the golf cart pretty much just along for the ride. As the summer progressed, the game got into my blood along with the strength to walk a full 18 holes. I would describe myself as a singer, a dancer, an artist, not the athletic type. But that all changed that year as I plowed my way through round after round at 14 strokes (or more) per hole.

I didn’t suspect the transformation that golf would ultimately demand. This is not just a sport. It is a mental breakdown in slow motion, round after round. The seed of my golfing ambition planted itself firmly as I looked forward with enthusiasm to punishing myself mercilessly on the course along the banks of the Matanuska River. Thorny emotions got tangled with the mechanics of the swing. Prickly weeds of confusion ran riot over the tender skills of chipping, putting, and keeping track of way too many strokes. My voice, made husky by radiation, succumbed to fertile expletives which had never before passed my lips. But given one terrific drive and a handful of well-struck putts and the strangling vines of frustration dropped away. I would leave the course happy and hopeful.

In the summer of 2011, my husband signed us up to play in a Cancer Society fundraiser best-ball tournament. This was a graduation day of sorts for me. I was healthier and stronger. The florid scars of cancer treatment had faded. The energy of my cancer battle had fully transferred to my improbable crusade to golf well. I am not competitive. I am profoundly self-conscious. I prefer not to have anyone see my pitiful golfing skills. Nevertheless, there I was playing in a tournament with veteran seekers of par. Ralph and I arrived at our shotgun starting hole before any other teams. I stanched my fear of being watched by jumping to the tee first. I planted my feet solidly and hit the ball with a satisfying ping. A well-timed rush of adrenaline sent my drive sailing high, straight, and long right down the middle of the fairway into the face of Pioneer Peak. My husband’s drive duck-hooked into the woods along the river. The other two men on our team sliced their drives into a grove of birch and highbush cranberry. My drive was the best ball. I marched proudly down the fairway to hit my second shot. I was captivated. I was also completely ignorant of the fact that my progress in the game up to that point was an illusion; a combination of tenacious will and pure naive luck.

In 2012, we moved to the Boise, Idaho area which is blessed with a wide array of golf courses from the mediocre to the deluxe. We bought a pass to River Birch Golf Course, a friendly and mildly challenging course with wide fairways and refreshing views. With the encouragement of our real estate agent, I joined the Boise chapter of the Executive Women’s Golf Association. At the opening chapter event of the 2013 season, the veil of my Alaskan golfing experience was stripped from my eyes. These women could really golf. They outdistanced my childish strokes by dozens of yards. I was in way over my head. By the end of that summer season, I was both frustrated to the point of nervous exhaustion, and still, even more serious about the game. Golf is a game of inches, not yards; of delicate body placement, not just crudely wrangled clubhead speed. Both the mechanics and the mindset require a humble assessment of things you thought you knew, and things you never supposed about who you are.

I dragged out every back issue of Golf magazine we owned and studied like a freshman hungry to get on the dean’s list. I developed a taste for viewing golf tournaments on television, which my childhood self would have found stupefyingly boring. I jealously examined the techniques of my fellow players. I drooled as I watched 11-year-old, 100 pound, Lucy Li’s 250-yard drives. It finally dawned on my brain, clear as the sunrise over the ball choked ponds at River Birch Golf Course: the golf swing is not about thousands of infinitesimal golf tips and the minutiae of equipment specs.

The golf swing is raw physics. The right movement of the body, in the right space, with the right rhythm, at the right pace. Grasp that firmly first.  Only then can you manage to keep the physics clean AND increase clubhead speed with the whipping action of the club. Swing with your body, not your arms. My mind was blown. Everything I had been doing to improve my game was all wrong. Just a random set of categorically unrepeatable actions.

My epiphany about the physics of the golf swing focused my attention on the science behind how my body should move. However, my mental state was as out of sync as my motions. I was too tightly wound. My heart raced. My thoughts shot about wildly resembling the wayward hooks, and slices of a crowded driving range. My hands gripped the club like it was the edge of a capsizing canoe sinking in a deep water hazard. I would run from ball position to ball position as if an Alaskan grizzly was chasing me. Quite simply my head was not in the game.

A bit of luck gave me the opportunity to attend a seminar on irons by a well known Boise golf pro. This man is the embodiment of ease and grace. He languidly moves through the golf swing with relaxed focus. His first instruction:  make no exclamations of dismay for bad hits and applaud every good one. His second instruction: never go out on the driving range and feverishly hit ball after ball after ball getting more and wound up and out of breath with every stroke. He encouraged hitting four or five balls, then stepping back to rest, slow down, and establish peace of mind.

The swing is physics, the mindset is calm. The pros don’t jog from position to position as if they are in a race with their opponent. They saunter. When tempers flare, they quickly shake off their nerves and irritations or they lose. The LPGA pros are even more collected.

No more racing, no more ranting, no more unwelcome worries on the course. Play one stroke at a time with full attention. This is the ultimate triumph of my crusade to break 100. I am fascinated by the physics of golf, but more importantly, the game has changed my inner life. I am learning to saunter, to slow my heart, to shake off anxieties, to move away from my ego. My golf ambition propelled me into a new phase of self-discovery: the peace of mindfulness, the endless grip of now.

 

 

Launched: 2015 A New Year Odyssey

“We’re still pioneers, we’ve barely begun. Our greatest accomplishments cannot be behind us,

cause our destiny lies above.”

Cooper to his father in the movie Interstellar

earth_1-jpg

Imagine hitching a ride on the Rosetta spacecraft as it sped into the darkness of space in March of 2004 for a ten-year flight to rendezvous in 2014 with comet 67P/C-G. (http://rosetta.jpl.nasa.gov/).

First, you’re  launched along  a  trajectory  of visual splendor following the cloud veiled, blue-green face of Earth for  a year-long orbit around the sun.  From there, a gravity assist flings you into a close flyby of ruddy and hopeful Mars, laced with tantalizing signs of alien mysteries and microscopic ancient life. The miracles of astrophysics slingshot you to the asteroid belt, back to earth, and to the belt again. You have traveled to the furthest reaches of the solar system, nearly a billion kilometers from the sun, its warmth and light growing so dim that for a time Rosetta shuts down all but the most essential functions to conserve energy.

Finally, in November of 2014,  you watch the first ever landing on a comet as Rosetta’s robot lander, the Philae, alights on the surface. Comets have both terrified and fascinated humankind for millennia, and now, humans have a presence on one of those comets and can closely monitor its fiery transformation as it approaches the sun. Pictures are taken, analysis of the comet’s composition and other data are transmitted and jubilantly welcomed by knowledge hungry scientists back on earth.

At the end of its mission, Rosetta  will usher the comet to  its closest pass of the sun, termed perihelion. Then, the lonely wanderer will have fulfilled it’s purpose: mission accomplished, mission terminated. And you need a ride back to earth.

Round-trip passage on Rosetta is not possible, but we have launched into a new year and quite literally another odyssey around the sun; through space and time we embark on Mission 2015

Ever since my teacher,  Mrs. Hawkins, read A Wrinkle In Time to my fifth-grade class, I have dreamed of space travel, of vaulting the limits of the known  in order to visit other worlds.  Madeleine L’Engle’s book is wrapped in wonder, and filled with starlight, alien creatures, and mind-bending  tesseract spacetime travel. Ideas  like these still propel my hopes and fuel my imagination, sending me to the theater nearly every time a real science fiction film is released.

“Life, with its rules, its obligations, and its freedoms, is like a sonnet: You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself.” (A Wrinkle in Time)

In the spirit of the movie Interstellar, I fire up the imagination of  childhood  to make plans for 2015. With such imaginings, plans become journeys and shirk the mundane. For this year’s journey I have decided to work at seeing things differently, adopting an active spirit of inquiry.  I’m searching for a more evocative approach to the fresh slate of time and space awaiting me on  this journey across 2015.

We are literally hurtling through space.  Vast amounts of  data bombard  us every single moment, second, nanosecond. This sensory overload pulls at us like the gravity of a neutron star, inescapable,  though we manage not to let it consume us.  Every day there are limitless options, but always a limited amount of time. The closer we get to that neutron star, the singularity of too much information for the mind to handle, the faster our time leaks away like oxygen through a growing pin prick in a  space suit. Thus the need for balance, a delicate orbit where the sensory data can be observed and understood without becoming our destruction.

At NASA everything is planned down to the fractions of each second in order to accomplish highly technical and highly refined projects. Mission control is all about engineering the perfect plan and foreseeing all the variables;  with hope directing every second, every motion, every calculation.

The demands of my own personal “astronaut training” here on spaceship Earth have been daunting: physically, mentally, and spiritually. It’s daunting for all of us.  At times I’ve been tempted to cut loose and simply drift, foregoing any hint of NASA like planning of my life.  But I can no more choose not to act with intention than I can choose not to breathe. Choosing to drift would still be a choice with consequences.

I shouldn’t and indeed cannot tighten  up control of my life  with NASA-style precision ;  but there should be and will be planning.  In 2015, I am taking inspiration from the beauty and brilliance of the cosmos, respecting the organic flow of my  life in a fashion similarly to the astronaut’s and astrophysicist’s, the engineer’s and mission control specialist’s respect and reverence spaceflight and exploration.

My Mission Control for 2015:

Silence: I will give my mind and body more restful, rejuvenating, silence.  Silent time away from noise, data, conversation.  Even time silencing my thoughts. Think of the silence in the vast spaces between the stars.

Slow Down:  I am going to slow down: move slower, think slower,  find calm, use the pause and the breath. Think of motion in the absence of gravity: graceful, flowing, floating.

Move with intention:  Too often instead of controlling my life, life controls me.  Whatever is in my face gets my attention and action.  I will take a lesson from the finely tuned precision of a NASA flight plan,  paying more heed  to  intentions and priorities, doing what is most important  now,  for love of and commitments to myself and others. If I’m always swept up by that immediate impulse to take care of what’s in my face seizing my attention, all that’s being satisfied is that impulse, and not the plans and intentions built from a place of desire and caring.

Mindfulness: Certainly a ten year journey to the asteroid belt would give an astronaut plenty of time to meditate, contemplate the wonders of the universe, and gain greater self-awareness.  My hope is that by tending to a few key practices, I can create a similar, albeit less isolated space for greater mindfulness in hopes to cultivate an atmosphere of contentment in mind, heart and body.

My mission Statement for 2015.  

It may not give me the ability  to tesseract my way to far off solar systems, but hopefully exploring  my own soul creatively using the imagery spaceflight will foster travels in inner space as  awe inspiring as the splendors of the universe.


“Well, the fifth dimension’s a tesseract. You add that to the other four dimensions and you can travel through space without having to go the long way around. In other words, to put it into Euclid, or old-fashioned plane geometry, a straight line is not the shortest distance between two points.”  
A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle